CMT.com celebrates Texas music this week. Today, we sit and talk with singer-songwriter Bruce Robison.
A new Bruce Robison album is positive news for people like George Strait, Tim McGraw, Garth Brooks, Gary Allan and Lee Ann Womack — all of whom have recorded his songs. The mid-November release of His Greatest sees the Austin, Texas-based artist re-record a broad selection of his most recognizable songs, including “Travelin’ Soldier,” “Angry All the Time” and “Wrapped.” Here, he explains why he’s a Nashville outsider, the musical influence of his family and why he likes to hang out with the smokers.
CMT: You have enjoyed a career as a performing artist in your own right and as a songwriter to people like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Are you ever confused by these two roles?
Robison: A little bit. … I’ve always known that I don’t want to give anything up. … I started out as a songwriter, and I still see myself as that first and foremost and I think I always will. But the performing part is such a big part of it, and it was the only way I got anything going with the songwriting. They’ve always been symbiotic, I guess. I’m 42 now, and since I was lucky enough to have a few songs do well over the past seven years — and that interacts with what a limited musician I am! — you start to think: Do I really want to just repeat myself? What is it that I want to do now?
Did you ever feel like you had to move to Nashville, or were you always comfortable in Texas?
That has been the confusing part, but I did learn that treating it as an outsider was really my only option. It wasn’t that I had so much integrity that I would never write a certain type of song just to get it recorded. It was more that I tried to do that and wasn’t any good at it! I’ve always had a lot of respect for friends of mine in Nashville who can write a certain type of song. It just isn’t the way that I do it. Those of us who have been country music fans for years see those carpetbaggers come in and say, “Hey, I’m just gonna come over here from rock ’n’ roll and clean out!” It doesn’t work that way. It’s a really condescending attitude. I’ve had to just write the kind of songs that I write. Some of them are pretty sad, and some are a bit of an anachronism, but I look at it as my calling card.
The new album features your “Greatest” songs, re-recorded. How have these songs changed over the years?
The biggest part of that is playing them live, sometimes they get a little quicker, and they can take on more of a dynamic. A few of those songs were really affected by the people that recorded them. I see that as a positive thing. If it becomes a hit, I’ll listen to it on the radio a bunch, then I don’t listen to my version anymore! Also, it’s different than if you recorded in Stax or somewhere. The mid-90s in Nashville were not this awesome recording time, and that’s when I was recording. It was the early days of digital, and it was weird in that way and kind of rugged to the ear.
The album opens with “Travelin’ Soldier,” a song that was a hit for the Dixie Chicks. Do you think the time will come around again for that song?
My only feeling is of how mind-bogglingly random the whole thing was the first time around. So it makes you hopeful that all things are possible. That song is the last one I thought would have been a hit. The Dixie Chicks took that song at the height of their popularity and released it as a single, and if that can happen, anything can happen. “Angry All the Time” was written from the perspective of a woman, and it’s never been recorded that way. And it changes the song, from another perspective — and I’m hopeful someday that it will happen. These songs, they’re like kids. You cut ’em loose and there’s no telling what they will do.
“My Brother and Me” is a defining song for you, about a family relationship. How profound an impact has your family been on you as a writer?
It was central. My upbringing was like country music boot camp. There was so much music around, so many interesting people in Bandera, Texas, and the outlaw movement of the ’70s was so ambitious, lyrically. Those things completely made me who I am. When I sit around and tell stories about these characters — people I grew up with — my friends will say, “You know, I never knew country people like that.” The song ’My Brother and Me’ just wrote itself. There’s an ambivalence there that’s always in my songs. Questions in life are never really clear-cut. Again, there’s a line in there about how someone in your family was in the Klan. When I wrote this song about my family, warts and all, it felt very worthwhile, and it still does when I sing it.
Do you feel like you seek out these interesting characters anywhere you go?
You know, I’ve never been a smoker, but I always hang out with them because they’re more interesting. That’s a blanket statement! So, in a way I still seek those people. … Where I’m from, there are a lot of characters, and Austin is also like that. I had a friend of mine who moved away because he said he didn’t want his daughter growing up thinking it was normal to have 12 facial piercings. So, one of the things about living here is that you don’t care about some of the more superficial aspects of life. There are a lot of interesting people.
Eamon McLoughlin is a member of the Grammy-nominated band, the Greencards.