The cover of Bruce Robison's new Country Sunshine CD resembles nothing so much as that of a Don Williams eight-track. An early-'70s-looking couple (who somewhat resemble Bruce and wife Kelly Willis) are standing in a puke-green meadow, smiling dreamily into the middle distance, looking for all the world like painted facsimiles of the protagonists in a bucolic episode of Love, American Style.
The resemblance to Williams's eight-track art is intentional. Robison has confessed to a serious Don Williams jones, and he didn't feel like Sony's Lucky Dog imprint was going to let him get his fix. For Robison, major-label Nashville releases these days all sound like "English rock records," and he wanted no part in making such an album. Thus he asked for his release from Sony, perhaps the first of the Robison brothers-Dixie Chicks extended family to make good their escape. His sister-in-law Emily's Dixie Chicks are embroiled in the nastiest artist-label litigation to rip through Music City in decades; meanwhile, his brother Charlie's excellent summer Lucky Dog release Step Right Up tanked, thanks to its poor singles, selected to fit country radio's blandness. It seems unlikely that Charlie will ever be a priority for Lucky Dog again, given his wife's accusations against them of "systematic thievery," racketeering and fraud.
So Bruce's exit from Lucky Dog was well timed. That's also a term that can be used to describe Country Sunshine, as Bruce turned the traps over to Nashville's jazzy Kenny Malone, perhaps the greatest percussion artist in Music City. Indeed, Malone all but earned himself a production credit, for it was he who rounded up the rest of the band and made the decision to book the album at Jack Clement's cosmic, palatial Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Studio. According to Robison, Malone was the first drummer he had ever come across who would ask him what the song was about before he would plan his drumming.
And what Bruce Robison seems to be about these days is sadness and regret, especially the latter. Were Kelly Willis, who will appear at this show, not all over this album, one would suppose that Robison had crafted it in an effort to win her back, after having lost her in a card game or some other equally heinous misdeed. Songs like "Bed of Ashes," "Blame It on Me" and the Willis duet "Friendless Marriage" with its devastating lines "She don't seem to smile no more / or look me in the eye / I don't say a thing at all or hold her when she cries" are an even bleaker nuptial vision of "The Wedding Song," brother Charlie's duet with Natalie Maines.
Country Sunshine isn't all remorse. The music throughout is warm, at times even chipper ("Devil May Care"), which provides an effective counterpoint to the barren emotional tundra in the lyrics. And Robison knows that no matter how low he gets, there's one man who has plumbed deeper. That would be Willie Nelson, who, as Robison remembers in "What Would Willie Do," was dispossessed by the taxman and also sewn up in his own sheets in his own bed and beaten with a broomstick by his wife, but manages to cope by smoking 'em when he's got 'em and loving everybody. Robison's messianic Willie got the leonine rednecks to lie down with the lamblike hippies, and "loves all the people no matter their races / hell, he even made a country record with Julio Iglesias." But that's pretty much the only ray of sunshine in this country, which is otherwise a cold, arid place watered only by spilled booze and Bruce Robison's tears. Listen and weep.