Bruce Robison
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Bruce Robison Revisits His Greatest Hits -- For His Own Album
Songwriting Credits Include Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, George Strait
January 8, 2009; Written by Eamon McLoughlin

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, b - CMT.com



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Bruce Robison's Winning Anti-Formula Strikes Again on His Greatest
By Michael McCall
Published on November 19, 2008 at 10:00am

Bruce Robison is country music's Mr. Anti-Formula: a go-to songwriter for top artists who can leverage their popularity to step outside of conventions. His songs are unusual only for the power of their true-to-life narratives and effortless melodies.

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Subject(s):
His Greatest, Bruce Robison (Premium Records), Playing Thursday, 20th at The Station Inn

But it's not just Robison's songs that break with convention. Amazingly, he achieves his success while ignoring every rule laid down for songwriters who want to write hit country songs. He never moved to Nashville. He doesn't co-write. He doesn't produce demos to sound like country radio. He doesn't wrap every song with a message of hope or with a protagonist who, even when beset with tragedy or tough times, perseveres through inner strength. Robison writes songs about how humans are, not how we want them to be.

Meanwhile, the jackpot he picks up in Nashville funds his Austin-based recording career. Mixing honky-tonk two-steppers with Lone Star storytelling, Robison has a two-decade track record that ranks him as the heir to the shit-kicking, South Texas intellectual crowd that hero-worships Guy Clark, Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen. All of which makes it more remarkable that his work ends up on country radio sung by George Strait, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks and Lee Ann Womack, who cherry-pick from Robison's records to bolster their own reputations.

Several of the hits he's provided for others anchor Robison's retrospective collection, His Greatest, released through online stores Nov. 11 and going retail in early January. It's his second album in recent months, following September's The New World, which proved that Robison's stunning narratives and sad-sack wit remain sharp.

His Greatest doesn't recycle older recordings, but instead presents new versions of his best-loved tunes. Most of the originals are out of print, especially those recorded during Robison's stint under Nashville's Sony Music umbrella. Others come from here and there, such as a new take on "Angry All the Time," originally recorded as a duet with Robison's wife, the seductive Kelly Willis. Shortly afterward, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill turned it into a top country hit in their most emotionally layered duet.

The song typifies Robison's strengths: It's a harsh tale about a couple with children who are splitting, and its telling details are sensitive and devastating. In it, the male lead admits they've both been worn down by the routine of it all, but her inability to cope makes it harder on all of them. His exasperation showing, he sings in the chorus, "I don't know why you have to be angry all the time," and Robison's melody expertly turns the accusation into an aching plea. This personal drama, with its universal truths about how partners splinter under the weight of daily life, is the kind of relationship song country music should do best—but rarely does.

Robison finds a fresh angle with each song, whether it's how he describes the allure of someone you don't want to live without on "Wrapped," which Strait made into a hit, or the undercurrent of how two young, lonely outsiders fall in love through open-hearted letters written between a small town and a war zone in "Travelin' Soldier," a No. 1 hit for the Dixie Chicks.

Robison's take on these songs is indelibly low-key, partly because his own recordings now take place outside of the mechanized radio production line, but also because his stories cut deeper when the drama is presented with subtlety. In person, the lanky Robison strips away stagy pretense with a wry, gangly warmth, and the result reminds listeners of how rare it is to encounter someone who gets inside mundane realities with such clarity and poetry.

- Nashville Scene


Bruce Robison - His Greatest
By: Matt Bjorke

While fans may not know of Bruce Robison the artist, they've most surely heard his songs before from Tim McGraw and Faith hill covering his "Angry All The Time" to George Strait recording both "Desperately" and "Wrapped" and turning them into Top 5 hits, Bruce Robison has been a go-to source for heartfelt, strongly written songs over the Decade. While a majority of these songs have been recorded by Bruce before, each of the renditions on this disc are slightly different than the original versions, to reflect the changes other artists made to the songs to fit their own styles or purely because time has changed the way the song is interpreted.

All the changes are minute but never before has Robison offered up a collection of songs that are truly some of the greatest tracks he's written. For most people "Travelin' Soldier" is one of the most well-known songs of the Bruce Robison catalog and if it weren't for a little overseas incident involving the Dixie Chicks, that song likely would've have garnered multiple awards and accolades. Despite that controversy, the song still is one of Robison's best tracks and the rendition here reflects the Chicks' arrangement. "Desperately" was written with Monte Warden and the stone country weeper again shows why Robison's sharp songwriting has garnered him glowing accolades over the years. Bruce's wife Kelly Willis shows up to provide harmony vocals while the song clocks in at about a minute shorter than previous versions.

Joe Dickens' shufflin' two stepper "The Good Life" is the lone song on this compilation that wasn't written by Robison and it's also one of the songs in which he allows himself to cut loose a little bit than he does on his own cuts. The previously mentioned "Angry All The Time" was on Robison's debut album and the melancholic sadness prevalent in the lyric is hammered home with the folksy vocal from Bruce. While turned into a hit by George Strait artists like Catherine Britt, Pinmonkey and Kelly Willis have all recorded "Wrapped."

Some of the latter tracks on this disc will be 'new' to country fans who have yet to own a Bruce Robison album. "My Brother And Me" is one of those songs and it comes out as one of the most poetic and lyrical songs on the album and truly showcases his songwriting gifts. "Not Forgotten You" is another strong lyric-driven track while the album closes with "Rayne, Louisiana," a song that originally was a duet with fellow singer/songwriting brother Charlie Robison. With Nashville fully aware of Bruce Robison's ability to write killer songs, "His Greatest" goes a long way at showcasing his gifts to the fans of the songs. There aren't many "greatest hits" packages that can rival the strength of this collection of tunes, and that's saying a lot. - Roughstock


DALLAS — Charm is a mysterious quality, no doubt. Some folks have it; others don’t.

Bruce Robsion and Kelly Willis, married for more than a decade and two of country music’s finest songwriters, have it. It’s a low-key charm, full of little looks and jokes and smiles.

Their personal relationship aside, these are two very talented people, collaborating on some fine music. At Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison’s Holiday Show on Friday night at the Granada Theater, the couple showed their considerable skill as performers while exuding a friendly warmth that added to the holiday mood.

Backed by a four-piece band, the two played a handful of Christmas tunes and their best material, a nice gift that Robison called "my little Christmas present," commenting that he and his wife’s careers prevent them from playing together very often.

There are so many places these Christmas shows could go wrong (on paper, I can’t think of a more unholy union than Christmas music and country twang), but the fact that they don’t is a testament to the taste and tremendous abilities of Willis and Robison. Willis’ flirtatious honky-tonk voice fit Santa Baby as perfectly as Eartha Kitt’s did years ago. And Robison explored a more familiar country theme with the classic ode to holiday sobriety, Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas), popularized by John Denver.

However great those covers were, the clincher Christmas ditty was Robison’s own Oklahoma Christmas, a foul singalong he said was inspired by his first Christmas at the pious Willis homestead. Many of the lyrics can’t go in a family newspaper, but it is worth checking out the raucous live version available on Happy Holidays, the couple’s 2006 Christmas CD.

Singing together works well for these two, as few voices in country music sound as good together as Willis’ and Robison’s do. On Angry All The Time, played at the encore, and Travelin’ Soldier, Robison’s relaxed, South Texas drawl perfectly complimented the ache in Willis’ voice. It might be country heresy to say this, but I’d rather hear Robison and - Ft. Worth Star Telegram


There's one thing I've come to know about Bruce Robison, in a couple decades of watching his gradual rise from an Austin nightclub and dancehall upstart to the likely future dean of Texas songwriters. And that is, despite the significant success he's had writing hits for other artists, he's not content to simply coast on the coattails of past accomplishments. The creative spark still burns in him.

So it wasn't really all that surprising to hear the wholly uncharacteristic sound which kicks off "The Hammer", the opening track of his new disc The New World. Robison's repertoire has always been pretty diverse – honky-tonk shuffles settle aside deeply personal ballads, poppy country melodies share space with raucous rave-ups – but this is something entirely different. It's downright...funky.

You get the feeling Robison probably enjoys the heck out of playing this particular tune. To be clear, it's not the precursor to a career-shift in an entirely new direction; the majority of The New World stays in touch with the songwriter's bread-and-butter moves, with a few subtle twists and turns here and there. But "The Hammer" is a pretty strong signal that Robison still wants to stretch the bounds of what he can do, not only as a songwriter but as a performer.

And perhaps as a homestyle record man as well. The New World is one of two new releases Robison is issuing more or less simultaneously on his own label, Premium Records; the other, a collection of re-recorded back-catalogue gems titled His Greatest, will be available digitally this coming Tuesday (November 11), with a CD release to follow on January 20.

On His Greatest, Robison reclaims the material on which he staked his reputation. His initial recordings of songs such as "Angry All The Time" (a huge hit for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill), "Desperately" (ditto for George Strait) and "Travelin' Soldier" (the ill-fated chart-topper for the Dixie Chicks the very week their prescient anti-war/anti-Bush remarks were delivered) came out on discs released in the late-'90s by the long-gone Sony imprint Lucky Dog. While those versions perhaps remain definitive, Robison's own recordings of them were never "hits" per se – note the clever title-tweak His Greatest rather than Greatest Hits – and thus there's a little more freedom for him to do what he wishes with his classics here.

Indeed, a large part of what makes these songs worth not only revisiting, but re-recording, is that they're good enough for Robison to continue playing them the rest of his life, without ever really wearing them out. Any of the three songs mentioned above would serve as a nice career-apex for most writers; in Robison's case, it's just scratching the surface. "Wrapped" and "Not Forgotten You" didn't become mainstream-country hits, but they did become first-rate entries in the ouevre of his wife, Kelly Willis; and if one of your main live gigs over the long haul is at South Austin's legendary Broken Spoke, it helps to have sure-fire boot-scooters such as "Poor Man's Son" and "Red Letter Day" to rely on.

The best of all, though, remains "My Brother And Me", which echoes Guy Clark's towering "Desperados Waiting For A Train" in some respects, but ultimately emerges as unique and unparalleled in the pantheon of Texas songwriting. This one hasn't been covered – perhaps because its observations are too specific, too personal; maybe only his brother Charlie could do it justice – but it will always be priceless, an art apart from anything else in the Robison songbook.

It's also a good object-lesson in why it's important to do things like the new album's "The Hammer": Though they're completely different songs, both "My Brother And Me" and "The Hammer" are unlike what you might expect from a guy playing for the two-steppers at the local honky-tonk. Not that Robison can't still come up with such stuff – "Twisted" from The New World is evidence enough of that – but the transcendent moments more often strike when inspiration overrides form. And if "The Hammer" doesn't quite elevate to transcendence, well, it sure is fun.

One other intriguing inclusion on The New World is "Hanging On Hopeless", which is notable in that it was not written by Robison, but rather by longtime Austin musician Kevin McKinney, a key sideman on the album. Buoyed by the steel guitar accents of Lloyd Maines, the song sways and swells to an aching melody, delivered by Robison with an emotional resonance that suggests he has grown comfortable enough as a singer to turn the tables on the songwriter/performer relationship.

"I never thought I was gonna have any hits," Robison told me a few years ago in an interview, "but I always had this feeling of moving forward." With His Greatest and The New World, it's evident that he's managed both, at the same time. - No Depression / Peter Blackstock


Discography

2008 The New World (due out Sept. 2)
2007 It Came from San Antonio
2006 Eleven Stories
2001 Country Sunshine
1999 Long Way Home from Anywhere
1998 Wrapped
1996 Bruce Robison

Photos

Bio

“Texas songwriter” is one of those job descriptions -- like “French chef” or “Kenyan runner” -- that packs a lot of implied historical weight. Any occupational title that invites immediate comparison to Guy Clark, Kris
Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett, and Willie Nelson is not for the faint of heart.

But Bruce Robison is more than up to the task, and his latest set of stellar songs, The New World (Robison’s sixth album release), merely confirms what everybody knew already: this cat is a tunesmith to be reckoned with. A longtime hometown favorite in Austin, in the last couple of years his songs, No. 1 hits like "Angry All the Time" (Faith Hill & Tim McGraw), "Travelin' Soldier" (Dixie Chicks) and "Wrapped" (George Strait) and another Top 5 hit with Strait’s version of "Desperately," have worked their way indelibly into the American consciousness. Real songwriters know that it’s not about how many units you move so much as whether people sing your songs to themselves when they’re alone. By either standard, Bruce Robison is among the first rank of Texas -- and, by extension, American -- songwriters.

Like the good small-town boy he is (Bandera, Texas, in case you’re wondering), Robison is always quick to give props to his family. But it’s pretty easy to be inspired by the folks around the dinner table when your wife is a much-admired alt-country thrush (Kelly Willis), your brother is a red-hot singer-songwriter in his own right (Charlie Robison), and your sister-in-law plays banjo and sings in a locally popular group known as the Dixie Chicks (Emily Robison). Never mind the rest of Texas; just being the best songwriter at a Robison family outing would be a hell of a distinction.

Of course, The New World is America, not just Texas, and Robison brings the full wild range of American music to bear on his songcraft here. Just for starters: the sunny C&W backbeat of "The New One," the world-weary soul balladry of "Bad Girl Blues," the stripped-down rockabilly drive of "Twistin'," and the relentless stomp of "The Hammer," recalling The Band in its heyday. It's a musical spectrum that might get away from a less confident artist, but here it just underscores the wide-open embrace of Robison's voice and viewpoint: everybody's welcome, even -- especially -- life's losers. The New World is a windows-down road trip across the country with a buddy who's stopped looking for trouble but can't keep himself from taking a detour by its last known address.

And in the plainspoken poetry of its lyrics, The New World is also something simpler and deeper: the same old world, seen with new eyes. Robison's characters have often lived large if not well, and some of the album's best songs examine how people deal -- or fail to deal -- with their pasts. In "California '85," the bitterness of lost love is softened by the fact that misery loves company, and by the third irresistible sing-along chorus ("It goes well with her lies"), you may have forgotten how sad you're supposed to be. Contrast that with "Larosse," in which a broken man sells his one remaining companion -- a horse he's raised from infancy -- with a lifetime's worth of regret and recrimination: "I'm tired of the look on his face."

If The New World's unsparing but compassionate look at lost souls feels real, so does its overall hopefulness, as in the playful talking blues of "Only," wherein a serial seducer cheerfully admits that he's finally fallen hard. "I'm bettin' on the new one," goes another song, with an optimism that feels both truthful and earned: the fact that things don't always work out means it's that much sweeter when they do.

In his clear-eyed, deeply felt songs, Bruce Robison does what great songwriters have always done: he takes the reality that surrounds us every day and makes it new again. Faded, careworn lives turn out to be rich with meaning when looked at from a slightly different angle, if you’ll just take the time . . . and Robison takes the time. The results are heartbreaking, hilarious, sweet, and stirring, as these songs confirm after even one listen.

Bruce Robison doesn’t require introductions anymore. He’s made himself heard in the hearts of people across the country, and his place in our national musical history is secure. But you still have to envy those lucky pilgrims who are about to discover The New World.