The Man for the Job
Charlie Robison is no Music Row Manilow
By Chris Webb

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."

-Hunter S. Thompson

Achieving mainstream country success is never an easy task. Far too many talented musicians slip through the cracks of a genre that seems to have lost its sense of personality. That's why Texas singer/songwriter Charlie Robison feels like such a survivor, delivering an album with mainstream appeal that doesn't compromise the wit and edge he is known for. With the release of his new Lucky Dog/Columbia album, Step Right Up, Robison is on a personal mission to bring excitement back to country music.

Mentored by master songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, Robison writes in their tradition, painting vivid pictures with keen observation and characters that are finely etched.

"Guy Clark kind of took me under his wing," Robison told the Associated Press. "Guy and Townes both. They taught me how to write. They taught me how to drink. They taught me a lot of thingsto keep fighting the good fight."

"There's nothing more I love than to be considered a Texas musician," says Robison. "But I want to be like Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett, who take it out of Texas and show them how it's done."

And like Earle and Lovett, Robison has seen his share of music industry grief. In fact, most of Robison's family, a potential music dynasty really, is in the business and all of them are sadly familiar with the woes of commercial music. Brother Bruce Robison and his wife Kelly Willis have been in constant battles for artistic freedom with the powers that be. Even Charlie Robison's wife, banjo-playing Emily from the Dixie Chicks, knows what a struggle it is to make it in the business today.

But Texas country's new poster boy isn't intimidated by any of that. He just set out to make a record that reflected his musical interests and offered a glimpse of his style and charisma.

Step Right Up shows a flair for lyrical detail with strange stories and quirky characters. Memorable melodies back it all up as he dishes out a potent mixture of musical styles This record maintains Robison's trademark story songs about things like corrupt cops and alien abductions, all sung with a Marlboro tainted twang. Co-producing the record with Blake Chancey, Robison has very much taken the reins, exuding confidence in the sounds and choices he makes.

The first single from Step Right Up is a cover of NRBQ's "I Want You Bad.

"I would never say I would do anything just for radio," Robison points out. "But I felt like I consciously, production–wise, picked a song they would have an easier time playing than a lot of the other stuff."

"Besides, I was a huge NRBQ fan for a long time," Robison explains. "I came from the same place, playing in a bar band. I was very much influenced by those guys, so it's a good match. "

Robison's ferocious growling twang is just another part of the devil-may-care Texas singer/songwriter vibe he so easily creates. And though he may have the flashy Nashville looks, he's very much a traditional Texas boy as he still owns and runs a ranch in Bandera County.

"People have asked what I would choose between having an artistic career and a commercial career," says Robison. "I've always been the guy who said, 'Why can't I have both?' I really don't feel like you have to pick between those two."

It seems that Robison has faith in his audience, and their response has been positive as crowds step out to witness the sheer amount of energy he creates on-stage. He's flashy and cocky with a clandestine smile, somehow tapping into the absurd nature of reality in an effort to prove that anything could happen.

As a result, lots of eyes are on Robison as he seems to be leading a crew of roots music performers hoping that their sound will resurface on mainstream radio.

Though Robison may not plan on being the guy in front of the cavalry holding the flag, it seems he's helping pave the way for like-minded artists. For the first time in his career, he's got a record company backing him fully as Sony Music Nashville offers full promotion and marketing support for Step Right Up. "I Want You Bad" has cracked the Top 40, which is quite a change from the days when radio stations wouldn't even play his songs. More importantly, all this is happening because Robison hasn't changed, the times have.

For more info on Charlie Robison, visit Charlie Robison plays at Lynagh's Music Emporium on Friday, June 22nd. The show starts at 9:30pm. Tickets are $8. Call 255-6614 for more info.