The mandolin burst out of the busted speaker like a semi going a little too fast and passing you on a two lane road. Just as that truck shakes the windshield and vibrates the steering wheel, the voice of Charlie Robison singing about his buddy back in ’81 shook me. It was unmistakably different, undeniably Texan, and undoubtedly authentic. Who was this man singing something that sounded so much like my life that I couldn’t believe it? Where had he come from? Why hadn’t I heard it before? It was the fall of 1999 in San Marcos, TX and I was homesick for my hell-raising buddies back home. “I went to college like they asked me to, but they didn’t ask my friends…” hit me square in the jaw. Thankfully, the song ended and as I hung on every syllable and note until it faded to Mattson Rainer on 92.1 Radio New Braunfels announcing through the static that, “Friends that was Charlie Robison’s ‘My Hometown’ off his latest record Life of the Party. It’s a good one.” I skipped class and drove straight to Sundance Records. I meandered to the correct section and found a rather debonair and sophisticated gentleman sitting on a barstool staring back at me. Life of the party indeed. My intrigue grew further. I shelled out some cash and damn near sprinted to my car to play this record. The opening strains of “Poor Man’s Son” hooked me and soon gave way to the folksy near spoken intro of “Sunset Blvd”. It was at this moment, that Charlie Robison transcended from nostalgic soothsayer to poetic storyteller. Little did I know what else was to come. Little did anyone. I was, by far, not the only one to have this experience.
At his best, Charlie Robison was the finest our state has ever had to offer. A complete package of writing and performing, all with a I don’t give a damn what you think Texan attitude. Bandera bred, Robison was from a family with a long Texan lineage that imbued the spirit of the land in his everyday life, be that playing sports, hunting, raising hell or writing songs. Picture Matthew McConaughey with a biting wit and suffer no fools attitude. He lived for the party…on his terms. Robison bounced around a bit before landing in Austin in the late 80’s. There he formed a band called The Millionaire Playboys. An aspirational and glowing band name that evoked Robison’s mission at that point. He wanted to conquer the world one telecaster shred at a time. Several years and iterations of this grouping gave way to a solo career that culminated in him releasing a record titled Bandera. Early versions of songs like “Barlight”, “Red Letter Day” and “Desperate Times” can be found here. Perhaps no other album cover in Charlie’s career sums up his spirit quite as well as the long blonde locked “let’s get this shit over with I have things to do” face that one finds on the cover of Bandera. That record made enough noise for Nashville to take notice. Along with the pen of his brother Bruce, people were starting to find that the Robison boys had something to say. Sony came sniffing around and signed both brothers and their highway compatriot Jack Ingram to a deal on their boutique Lucky Dog label.
Flush with enough cash to make the record he wanted and had been building to, Charlie Robison enlisted Lloyd Maines and set about creating the aforementioned Life of the Party. On the heels of Robert Earl Keen’s door openings and the uprising of Pat Green, Robison created an album that appealed to all manner of fans…music snob songwriter lovers and keg party goodtimers. “My Hometown” and “Barlight” got you through the door, but “Loving County” stopped you in your tracks. There are not many songs in the Texas songwriter canon as well-done and performed as this one. Soon, Charlie was on CMT and radios nationwide. A burgeoning romance with Emily Erwin of the Dixie Chicks propelled Charlie to the Enquirer rags he’d dryly dreamed of on “Sunset Blvd”. A live effort between he and Bruce and Jack from Gruene Hall was recorded and released as Unleashed Live. Lucky Dog’s ahead of the curve attempt at multi-media fusion…buy the cd and get the VHS. The label sent the three on the road to promote it and in between all that craziness, Charlie headed back to the studio to work on his Life of the Party follow-up, Step Right Up. Blake Chancey slid in the producer’s chair for Lloyd Maines and it resulted in a more commercial sound. Yet, Charlie didn’t let Nashville dictate anything to him. He still played the game his way. For instance, the lead single was a cover of obscure band NRBQ’s song “I Want You Bad”. A Cheap Trick-esque adventure that in hindsight almost feels as if Charlie was seeing just how far he could push things. Album highlights included the Natalie Maines duet “The Wedding Song”, the Celtic-infused “John O’Reilly” and a punchier “Desperate Times”.
During this entire run of success, Charlie was hitting the road as hard as anyone. From Seattle to Miami and all points in between. He was married to a member of the biggest group in country music and sometimes that’s all anyone wanted to talk about. The masses never realized there was a depth of art right under their noses that they just might dig. An issue that would impact Charlie and dozens of his peers for years. Another live record came in 2003, most notable for the between songs banter and jams on songs like “Tonight”. The album was capped with another slick studio cut, “Walter” that didn’t really fit the vibe or Charlie. The following year found Charlie signing to Dualtone and releasing the Good Times album. Appropriately titled, this effort reunited Charlie with Lloyd Maines and found more in common with Life of the Party than much of the rest of the catalog. The album opened with instant CR-written classics like the title track and “New Years Day”. On this record, Charlie also picked songs from the pens of Terry Allen, Waylon Payne and most notably Keith Gattis. Gattis’ “El Cerrito Place” with backing vocals from Natalie Maines would bring Charlie the greatest commercial notice of his career. The video shot into high rotation on CMT and the track was added to many playlists nationwide.
To help promote his record and career, Robison was asked to join the cast of a new TV talent show called Nashville Star. One of the contestants was a young singer/songwriter from Texas named Miranda Lambert who acknowledged that Charlie was one of her heroes. Charlie blurred the lines between being a Simon Cowell and being a Randy Jackson. He had a good time with it in a winking, I can’t believe we’re doing this on TV type way. Then, life got busy and messy. Divorce landed at Charlie and Emily’s doorstep and they kept it out of the tabloids. Robison toured, then retreated to Bandera. He wrote, he mused, he got drunk, he worked. He repeated that cycle. This all led to 2009’s Beautiful Day. Achingly called his divorce record, much like Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages, Charlie put his pain and recovery to music. The album charts a relationship from innocent and naive happy beginnings to bitter endings to regretful acceptance. The 2010’s would bring Charlie to a place of elder statesman status among Texas songwriters. He was revered and celebrated. His devil may care attitude lent itself to playing shows in board shorts and being more himself than ever before. Another live record, this time courtesy of Billy Bob’s arrived followed closely by his last studio effort of cover songs entitled High Life.
Everyone kept waiting for that next Charlie record. Rumors swirled. He’d play a new song at a show now and then. But, mostly he was just living. Raising money for Rockport hurricane victims, raising his kids, ranching, fishing, hunting, and living it up. Play a few gigs, do the family thing for a few weeks. Balance had arrived in his life. Something was amiss though. A routine vocal issue led to surgery led to a recovery process that never quite fully healed. Thus, leading to his retirement announcement last night.
Charlie Robison is a living legend. A man that climbed about as high on the mainstream mountaintop as any self-respecting Texan would want to and realized life was better in Bandera and between the Red and Rio Grande. Write some songs, play some shows, catch some reds, play some ball, hang out with your buddies. He is as Texan as it gets and that pride permeated every moment of his musical career. It was in his music and it is in him. For now and forever. Charlie Robison’s music made you feel something. He made you think. REK opened me up to this music, Pat and Cory made it seem real and Charlie Robison made it cool. He was a rock star in the best sense of the phrase. He indeliby made his mark on what Texas music was, is and will be in the future. His impact cannot be understated and we should all be thankful he picked up the pen and guitar all those years ago. Whatever adventure comes next for Charlie will be one worthy of our attention all over again. In the meantime, crank up your favorite Charlie Robison songs and toast the career, life and talent of a true Texas original.