There's a wistful, yet lighthearted self-awareness to Charlie Robison's "Middle of the Night" that echoes the tone of Texas country artists like Terry Allen and Guy Clark. It paints a convincing picture of a barroom abuzz with people locked in their own worlds—which Robison's been sucked into as well—with a wry, bemused smile.
"Why I can't find the door?" he wonders, answering himself a verse later with "wouldn't be any place but here." After surveying the room, Robison's final verse turns inward, admitting his own foibles and advancing age ("car full of dents/ face full of lines"). His acknowledgement is not necessarily a pledge to do better, as he quickly falls for someone who just walked in the door.
This affectless, plainspoken honesty is a key characteristic of his homespun style. It speaks to country's blue-collar origins in a way Nashville's fancy hats and rhinestones often doesn't manage, no matter how often Faith Hill sings Lori McKenna's "Unglamorous."
The Independent caught up with Robison at his San Antonio ranch.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You've got a new album, and it's the first time you've self-produced. Tell me a little bit about the genesis of Beautiful Day.
CHARLIE ROBISON: It was a part of my life I was going through when I was making the record. We'd had three kids and got divorced. It was just throughout that two-month period of time, the ups and downs with everything.
How about the song "Middle of the Night"?
That's the first song I wrote for the record. I was living in a different place. I had moved out of the house with Emily, and I had a little loft in downtown San Antonio and actually went out that night, by myself. I was just hanging out having a few whiskeys and drinking a few beer, and it got to be 12 or 1 o'clock in the morning. I just sat in this great little bar here in San Antonio and watched the people and just kind of went back home. It was like, "Man, I'm going to write about what I just saw in that bar, and how I'm feeling right now." It was one of those songs where you just basically dictate. I just wrote about every single person in there like that.
The classic line I love in there, I just wrote just exactly what came out, "I been in love about 15 times/ got a heart full of dents and a face full of lines/ number 16 walked right in/ better sit up straight/ my momma would be proud." I was just like, "Everyone is going to think that's the goofiest line in the world," and that's the first line everybody comes up to me and says, "God I love that line." As the famous line from Hollywood goes about making movies, "Nobody knows nothing," and I think the same can be said about music. Nobody knows nothing. No matter how much I think I can tell when I have a good song, or a good line, the ones I think are the best are the worst, and the ones I think are the worst turn out to be the best. I really don't know nothing, and the more I learn, the less I know for sure.
It's how the world teaches us humility.
And I've become a very humble person as a result.
You close the album with "Racing In the Streets," which seems a particularly apt redemptive sad song.
There are several reasons why I did that song. One of them is that, about 15 years ago when I first signed to Warner Brothers when I first got my big Nashville deal, I was really unhappy with it. They were trying to make me very commercial country, so I would go over and hang with Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt in Guy's writing room in the basement of his house. We'd all drink whiskey, pass the guitar around, and play our favorite cover songs, trying to surprise each other with what we played. So one day, I can't even remember who played it, whether it was Townes, me or Guy, but we all knew the song. But Guy ended up saying, "You would do that song great. Promise me you'll put that on your record some day." And of course, I said, "Yeah," and I never gave any thought to it.
Then I made this record, and so much of this record I wrote it in the summer when I was down at this little place on the coast of Texas. I have a boat down there. The record just really feels like a summer record to me, with the cover art and the songs I did on it. So basically "Racing in the Streets" reminded me of what was going on in my life, what the record was about and, also, the car was kind of analogous to my boat. That's how I felt whenever I'd go down there to get away from the whole divorce and get away from recording and just the business and everything like that. I went out on my boat, and one day it was just like, this is "Racing in the Street." This is what I'm living. I call it the Cliffs Notes for the rest of the record. If you don't listen to it, and you want to know what the record is about, just listen to "Racing in the Streets." Then you know when you have more time, you can read the book.
Typically you've written about characters. How was it to step out front in some sense, especially if you're self-producing. Not only do you have to be honest, but you also need to be kind of outside yourself as well.
The thing is, when I sat down to write the record we were just right in the middle—at that tipping point of whether or not we were going to try to save the marriage or whether we were going to get divorced. It was kind of the worst time. But I knew I had to get a record out. I just was really wanting to go back in the studio, even though that stuff was going on. It had just been too long, so when I sat down to write I tried to write how I had done in the past, but with everything that was so fresh in my life and how emotional everything was in my life, and the ups and downs, I just really didn't have any choice but to write what was going on in my life at that time.
There was no way I could've just written a "My Hometown" or "Loving County" or things like that. I had things inside myself, and I had to address what was going on in my life. When I set to actually writing this out, the songs were all written about what was going on exactly that day at that time. They were written in two days or one day or the night before we went into the studio, so that's how fresh all the stuff was. But it worked out really well. It was hard to get to the place where I was writing that way, but once I got there, everything came really fast.
Is it strange to be singing these songs in front of a lot of people and have them give you this positive, loving feedback about something that was obviously very personal and very hard?
It was very much like with "My Hometown." I didn't play that song for anybody for the longest time because I thought this song is really just exactly about my life. All those things actually happened. I was like, "I don't know how everybody else is going to feel about that. Are they going to identify with that?" But then everybody has gone through that same thing. And that's kind of how this record is. Everybody already knows every word to every song, and people are coming up to me and just like, "Man, I'm going through all this right now, so it's like I listen to the record non-stop." It just depends on where you are in your life, what you get out of the record. If you're in a really happy relationship then you listen to it in a totally different way than you would if you were going through a break-up. It's a very subjective record.
I remember reading an interview where you worried about tipping over into the kind ball cap-wearing crowd one sometimes sees at a Pat Green concert. It seemed like you might have a problem with that for a time, thought it seems to have passed.
Yeah, and my musical style, it's a very big camp. Especially what I was saying in those days, I didn't want to just be classified as just that crowd, or just strictly a commercial country player, or just this loud-talking, brash dumbass. I wanted to kind of be accepted by whoever wanted to be in there. And lots of times, you can be picked out by people who say, "Oh I don't want to go to that show. I'm not going to go to that show because it's just a lot of loud frat kids." But that's really not how it is. And pretty much all of us, whether it's Jack, Pat or everybody, we've all gotten to the point where our audience is really a wide genre of people, from ball caps to their teachers to people who listen to AAA radio and country radio. So it's all over the place, which is perfect place to be.
It seems like there has been an influx in the last decade of a whole new bunch of people who listen to country. Did that buoy you and help diversify the audience.
I really don't follow stuff. I know there are a lot of new people out there. I'm not familiar with a lot of them. It's just living down here in San Antonio on the ranch, I'm really kind of isolated which I like a lot because it keeps me from following any trend or anything like that. I'm really just isolated so when I go into the studio, whenever I do live shows, I really haven't gone to see shows or listened to the radio. I've got my iPod, and I listen to anything but country, probably. If I listen to any country music, it's going to be Bob Wills or something like that because I pretty much want to escape from my kind of genre whenever I'm not playing.
It just seems to me that, after O' Brother, there suddenly was a groundswell of interest in all kinds of country, but for want of a better word, more authentic kinds of country music.
I think what's going on now is the sum of a lot of parts—things that were happening with the red dirt scene, things that were happening in Texas, things that were happening with O' Brother, and there was just a lot of stuff going on like Ryan Adams, and Lucinda [Williams] had a few big years right around that same time. So I think all of it, in like a two-year period, 10 or 20 things kind of happened, and all of it at once in this kind of genre that brought it to the forefront.
It's been a decade since that famous or maybe infamous country music seminar when you told the programmers that you were the greatest thing they'd seen, but were probably too fucking stupid to play you. Has your attitude and perspective on the music biz changed over the years?
My perspective hasn't changed, but I'm not talking as much as I used to. With age, you have to settle down a little bit. So I was young and having fun.
I especially like that bit about being "a bunch of dolphins in a world of stupid sharks."
I've got quite a few quotes out there that kind of make me shake my head when I hear them back now.
It seems like in the last decade you've settled into something all your own that doesn't require a lot of compromise?
Exactly. I've built an audience and just gotten to the point where I don't need any kind of commercial appeal to bridge my career. I just concentrate right now on making good music. The radio play or all that other crap doesn't really come into it. Basically now I make a record. If there's something on there that radio is going to play, then that's great, but in other words, I don't go into the studio and say, "I need a song that's going to fit for radio."
I was wondering about collaborating with your brother, Bruce. Is that ever anything you could see on the horizon?
We've tried a few times, but we've always had the relationship where he's my best friend in the whole world, and whenever one of us has good news, we're the first ones to call each other. When we have bad news, we're the first ones to call each other. But as far as getting together and working together, within 10 minutes, we're just about at each other's throats. We just revert back to when we were 10 years old. It's just, "Shut up. No, you shut up." It's pretty juvenile. So maybe one of these days, we might settle into a place, but we've never been able to make it work to this point.
Charlie Robison plays Berkeley Cafe with Sunny Sweeney Saturday, Sept. 19, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12-$15.