Finding Charlie Robison about five or six years ago would've been easy. He would have been at Austin's Continental Club, either smoking a Marlboro, having a beer and hanging with the local gang, or on the club's stage, playing a progressive yet purist country sound that he and his Texas contemporaries had little hope would ever get its rightful hearing in Nashville.
After all, Robison tried to play the Music City game, hooking up with Warner Bros., recording an album for the label, then getting unceremoniously dropped without the album ever seeing the light of day. Robison was a typical Texas country rebel, if not the archetype: a ranch-raised boy from Bandera, which calls itself the Cowboy Capital of the World, playing music the way he wanted for the pleasure of Lone Star State honky-tonkers.
What a difference a few years makes. Today Robison lives in San Antonio, is married to country superstar Emily Robison (née Erwin) of the Dixie Chicks and is enjoying a busy national road schedule that finds him playing for club crowds that number in the hundreds and sometimes the thousands. After selling some 100,000 copies of his major-label debut, Life of the Party, Robison is finishing up his second album for Sony Nashville. Certain country DJs and radio programmers are getting behind him, and other artists are starting to record and release his songs as singles. Longtime hero George Strait even recently told Robison that Life of the Party is his current favorite CD. It's all confirmation of Robison's personal approach: He makes music exactly how he wants to, free from the usual restraints of the Music City that once abandoned him.
"If six, seven years ago, you would have said I'd be where I am right now, that would have been double what I'd dreamed of that would make me happy," says Robison. "If you would have said five years ago that I would be just touring around Texas, selling out 400- or 500-seat halls, I'd have been like, 'Oh, man, I don't believe you, but that would be great.' It has far surpassed anything that I ever dreamed of, so anything after this is just icing on the cake. I'm going to keep striving to be better and write better, and to do well with what I am doing. But if it stayed just where it is right now, I couldn't be happier."
Native Houstonian Robison didn't exactly plan a career in music. He dropped out of college and convinced his brother, Bruce, to move with him to Austin so both could start writing songs and playing in bands. The burgeoning presence of both Robisons, not to mention Charlie's 1995 independent album, Bandera, eventually sparked a buzz beyond the Travis County line.
When Nashville first came calling, Robison tried to toe the company line. It was a mistake that he did not plan to repeat. "All the things that I learned when I was on Warner Bros. was like the greatest training for me, because I kind of played ball with them, and then they dropped me," Robison says.
So when Sony later approached him with an offer to make a record for its Lucky Dog farm-team imprint, Robison knew enough to keep his expectations low and his own artistic standards high. He cut Life of the Party, a low-cost album that has now sold enough to turn a profit. The radio and video play that Robison earned, without the benefit of any high-powered promotional effort, was enough to convince the folks at Sony to elevate the Austinite to full major-label status on Columbia. "I tell them, 'I love recording for this label, but I'm going to do this exactly how I am going to do this, and don't screw with me.' And they go, 'Okay.' "
That alone would have made most artists happy. But it was only one facet of Robison's charmed life. About two years ago Robison fell in love and, rather quickly, got married. On a night off from the road, he drove from Austin down to Gruene Hall to see his fellow Sony recording artists the Dixie Chicks. When he met Emily Erwin that night, he says, he "knew." When both met again a few weeks later at Nashville's annual Fan Fair, Robison says, "she knew." They married eight months later.
It might be an exaggeration to say that Emily has made an honest man out of ole Charlie Robison, but it does make sense. Robison notices the positive progress he has made in his life and career. "A lot of it I attribute to my wife," Robison says. "After I got off riding on the bus with the Dixie Chicks for a while, I was just amazed at how they work their asses off. I've always worked hard in music, but it was never like that. And I was just like, if you get out and get serious about this shit, there's no end to what you can do. You can really make something of yourself."
Independence, however, is still a Robison virtue. He produced his new album himself, using his Austin band -- guitarist Kevin Carroll, bassist (and brother-in-law) John Ludwick and drummer Mark Patterson (no known relation to this writer), augmented with local hotshots like guitarist David Grissom -- and recorded it at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio. Robison has cut seven of his own songs, one by brother Bruce, two from the catalog of revered rock and roll bar band NRBQ ("It Comes to Me Naturally" and "I Want You Bad"), and the song "Sweet Inspiration," by Mike Barfield and Eric Danheim of Houston's Hollisters. Robison is just about to add a few final touches in Nashville, "and nobody at the record label has even heard it yet," Robison says with a faint touch of rebel pride.
"It's a really cool time right now," Robison says. "It's like I tell everybody. I don't want to go downtown anywhere anymore, because I know that something is gonna fall off the top of a building and hit me. It's like, 'What else good could happen to me today?' Crash!"
Charlie Robison performs Friday, June 30, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. For more information, call (713)869-COOL.