Family Style

It could be the stuff Nashville wet dreams are made of: two strapping, handsome brothers from a Wild West small town in Texas, both of whom sing and write songs. They grew up ranching, working on an oil pipeline and playing in a local band before they both won sports scholarships to college. One is married to a pretty, well-respected singer, while the other is engaged to a gal from a currently chart-topping country act. Why, hell, put them boys in Stetsons and some crisp, tight Wranglers, get 'em to cut an album -- hell, even a single -- together, maybe even make a video for TNN or CMT that gets the babes wet in the saddle, and it just might be "easy street, here they come."

But Bruce and Charlie Robison will have none of that. Although these two siblings from Bandera by way of Austin make contributions to each other's albums, and have a fairly obvious pact of mutual support, don't expect them to go the way of so many other brothers -- from the Everlys to more recent Texans such as the Vaughans and Sextons -- and team up to milk the natural show-biz fondness for family acts, at least not any time soon. Even though they've both issued new CDs via the same major-label affiliate, the Nashville straight-and-narrow is far from where the Robisons make their way. Charlie has already bailed on one previous Music City deal, and Bruce seems almost surprised that he's come up to bat in the musical major leagues, having previously seen his future mainly as a writer, not a performer.

Which means that you probably aren't going to hear Bruce's Wrapped and Charlie's Life of the Party on 93Q Country. Nor, for that matter, are these musically left-leaning "country" discs likely to change the thinking in the industry, even though they are full of the smart and rugged songwriting that Nashville is sorely lacking these days. But that hasn't stopped both siblings from seeing their deals with Sony's Lucky Dog imprint as a ray of hope for their brand of quality American roots music from Texas.

For both Robison brothers, the mere fact that they have careers is like a dream come true. "I'm surprised, in a way, that I ended up being a songwriter and a singer," Bruce confesses. "It didn't seem to be an attainable goal when I was a kid. Those people who made records and stuff were from another planet as far as I was concerned. My family was very working class; journeyman types. After I quit school, they hoped I would join a union or something."

Luckily, the brothers Robison (both pronounce it "Rah-bison," not "Row-bison") grew up in Bandera, the self-proclaimed "Cowboy Capital of the World," a town where the horizons were far more wide-open than in most other small Texas communities. "It's kind of special, in that it's a small Texas town, and yet there's lots of tourists there, so it's a real open-minded place," Bruce explains. "People are used to seeing anybody from Japan or England or China or wherever the hell. It's pretty cosmopolitan in its own backwards kind of way."

Similarly, the Robison household boasted fairly eclectic musical tastes. "We lived out on a ranch, and every morning I would wake up at 7 o'clock with Janis Joplin blaring or Stone Poneys or something like that," recalls Charlie. "It was always there. My grandmother's a huge music fan. Any time of the day, music would be a huge, integral part of what was going on."

By the time they were in high school, Charlie (the elder) and Bruce (the younger) Robison were playing together in a band that covered everything from Black Sabbath tunes to "Whiskey River." Each of them won sports scholarships to college -- Charlie playing football, Bruce in basketball -- and eventually dropped out. For both, the clarion call of a musical future echoed somewhere in the back of their minds.

"It's really what I wanted to do," says Charlie. "Either that, or I wanted to be a professional sports person, baseball or football player or something. I guess at the point when I was a sophomore [in high school] that I decided I wanted to do music. I really didn't want to go play college football that bad. I wanted to stay and keep doing music. But I felt like, you're getting free school, you'd be stupid not to. It was a good experience, but then I was ready to get back to music."

For Bruce, the ambitions took a bit longer to bubble to the surface. "I didn't think it was something that was within my capabilities. Those people I idolized, like Waylon and Willie, they weren't real people. When I was a kid, there were people like that, and people like me.  

"I never really thought that people would want to listen to my voice. It was a long and slow transformation to get to that level of conceit, which it kinda is: I'm gonna book a show and people are gonna pay money and come in and watch me for two hours. For me that's a pretty conceited notion, a pretty arrogant proposition."

By 1987, they'd both left college, landed in Austin and were trying to figure a way to get started in music. Charlie charmed his way into the popular roots-rock band Two Hoots and a Holler; then, later on, both brothers landed in Chaparral, a traditional-leaning country band that sparked the country dance scene that is still a big part of Austin nightlife. It was in that group that the brothers began performing their own songs, with Charlie leading the way.

"He was always the one who did a lot of the things I talked about," recalls Bruce. "It might have been me who first talked about coming to Austin and seeing what would happen, and then we both did. Then it was me who first talked about joining a band, and he went out and did it -- made friends with the guys in Two Hoots and just got in the band. And I just couldn't believe it. Then, I was talking about starting my own band, and he went and did it. And that, in turn, would definitely push me to go ahead and have the courage to do it."

The act of stepping up to the plate was a liberation for Bruce. "Right after I started writing songs, the doors just opened for me. Everything I'd done to that point, I'd felt bad at: basketball, the jobs that I did, or school. I just got used to being so mediocre, so subpar. I don't say this trying to get praise. I was really lousy at it."

After building a local name for himself, each Robison released a debut album in 1995 on the small Austin Vireo Records label. Charlie was then courted and signed by the Nashville division of Warner Bros. For that label, he recorded an album produced by Music City veteran Josh Leo that he wasn't happy with, so the deal was ditched. But the brothers' growing reputations attracted the interest of Sony Nashville, which had started the Lucky Dog imprint to make inroads into the burgeoning "alternative country" movement. The label picked up Bruce's second release, Wrapped, which he'd released on his own Boar's Nest imprint, recutting some tracks before reissuing it. Charlie, meanwhile, made a sophomore disc for Lucky Dog as well. (Both albums, incidentally, were recorded by Texas C&W producer-of-the-moment Lloyd Maines.)

While Lucky Dog seems to be giving the Robisons first-class treatment, including videos for both, their ambitions remain sensible. "I see people like Steve Earle and Lyle [Lovett], a lot of folks who didn't fit in anywhere and made a career for themselves," Charlie notes. "I've never really aspired to be a huge star or anything like that. But I figure, okay, if there's an audience for that, there's an audience for me. I just feel like, if you make good music....

"I realized that if I was going to stay away from mainstream, I was going to have to try to learn to write well enough that [I was] going to get a crowd whether it [was] mainstream or not," he adds. "That's like what Lyle and Steve do -- they write so well you can't keep them down."

Similarly, Bruce is focused on what he calls "attainable goals." "I'd really love to be able to make a living writing songs, and touring and making records, and staying in Austin," he says. "And that's a pretty big goal."

Interestingly enough, both of the Robison albums kick off with brotherly contributions -- Bruce's Wrapped features a duet with Charlie, "Rayne, Louisiana," while the first track on Charlie's CD is Bruce's song "Poor Man's Son." They've also both found love in the musical world -- Bruce is married to Kelly Willis, while Charlie was recently engaged to Emily Erwin of the Dixie Chicks -- yet the focus now is on establishing their own identities. Don't expect the Robisons to make their careers a family affair any time soon. On the other hand, they make it a habit these days to never say never.

"Charlie is always wanting to do things and do shows together," Bruce says. "I've always been trying to separate us, just because I felt I would be overshadowed if we were right there together. But now, what we do is getting more different all the time, and our personalities are getting more pronounced in different ways all the time, so it makes it easier for us to do things together.  

"It's one of my main goals to make a record with him, whenever that time comes. I think it's gonna be great too, whenever it makes sense."

"The Vaughan brothers were a great inspiration in that way," he adds. "They established their own careers, and then when they made a record, it was really a happening when they did it, and it was special in its own way, and it was a true collaboration. But we've never wanted to be the Bellamy Brothers or anything like that at all. Like I said, I think we are both too conceited and arrogant for that."

Charlie Robison performs Friday, October 2, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Showtime is 9 p.m. Tickets are $8. Bruce Robison performs on Tuesday, October 6, with Kelly Willis and Richard Buckner at the Mucky Duck. Showtime is 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $12. For info, call 528-5999.

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