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I’m the right man for the job," drawls Charlie Robison on the opening track of Step Right Up, slated for an April 10 release on Columbia Nashville/Lucky Dog, and though it may not sound modest, the reaction to the Texas native’s first release for the label’s Lucky Dog imprint has already made the point. "Robison is a yarn-spinner who knows the value of a backbeat," wrote critic Brian Mansfield in USA Today, while Chet Flippo described 1998’s Life Of The Party as "boisterous, funny, insightful and ass-kicking" and the Gavin Report called it simply "one of the best country albums of the year."


Sharing production duties with Charlie on Step Right Up is one of Nashville’s hottest producers, Blake Chancey, (Dixie Chicks, David Ball and Mary Chapin Carpenter). The result is music that’s at once robust and gritty – much like Robison himself. Unlike the "Music Row Manilows" filling the airwaves, Charlie Robison’s view of life has room for its failures and tragedies; he knows that love’s not everything, and sometimes it might not even be enough to get by. That wry outlook helped to make Life Of The Party a sales and radio anomaly – unlike most CDs, it scored its best chart performance, including his highest debuting chart single, more than a year after its release – and it makes his new album the perfect antidote to an overdose of sugary sentimentality.


Yet Step Right Up is no juvenile kiss-off to Nashville. For one thing, there’s too much talent, from the road-tested players who do the lion’s share of the backing to the well-crafted songs pungent with the flavor of Texas dance halls and beer joints from which he came. Rather, this is music from and for the real world, where even the good choices are tough, and whether playful or disheartened, these songs will strike a chord with anyone who has lived for more than the 9-to-5 grind and found out the hard way that love doesn't conquer all.


Charlie Robison is no fresh-faced boy out to be the next pop crossover sensation. He’s earned his success the hard way, and hasn’t forgotten where he came from – in fact, he still lives in Bandera,Texas where his family has ranched for eight generations. "A flirt or a flame or a friend or a fight…anything might happen tonight," he sings on "Tonight," (penned by his brother, Bruce Robison) and that down-to-earth sense of come-what-may pervades Step Right Up. "Think John Prine meets Elvis Costello in an Austin, Texas honky-tonk," writes Chet Flippo, getting to the heart of Charlie’s appeal.


Like its predecessors, Step Right Up highlights Charlie’s songwriting as much as his talents as a singer of songs. He’s responsible for eight of the album’s dozen tracks, writing six by himself and another two with his brother Bruce. "He’s about the only person I really write with," Charlie says. "I used to write with a lot of different people, but I just don’t enjoy it that much. Bruce and I come from the same place, so it’s a very natural process." This time around, the collaboration yielded the jaunty, deadpan opener, "Right Man For The Job" a rockin’, Tex-Mex flavored tall tale, "One In A Million." "It’s hard for us to be real serious around one another," Charlie laughs, "it’s kind of a jocular atmosphere when we get together, so that’s what comes out of it."


Charlie’s family and hometown of Bandera were inspirations for other songs on Step Right Up, too. "The Wedding Song," a down-to-earth yet sweetly hopeful duet with the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, came from his sister’s wedding, he recalls. "She married her high school sweetheart, and there was just not much money for a wedding, so everyone brought a covered dish, and my brother and I played songs. Marrying your high school sweetheart can either be the best thing or the worst thing in the world – it depends on who it is. Natalie does such a great job, it was really fun."


"’The Preacher’ – that’s one of my favorites, and there’s a lot of Bandera in there, too," he adds. "Of course, with all the politics of the last 4 years, it seems like no one’s setting ground rules for themselves any more. So it was definitely a poke at small-town life – you know, people kind of looking over everybody else’s shoulder when they’re doing a lot of bad stuff themselves – but it’s a lot bigger than that, too."
"Desperate Times," a story about a cop turned bank-robber, is another song with roots in real life. "That guy was a friend of mine in high school and kind of went the wrong way," Charlie says. "The song was on my first album, which is really hard to find, and I wanted to use one of my old songs that’s stood the test of time." Similarly, he laughs, "Life Of The Party" points back to his last album. "During the time when I was making that record, I was still single," says Charlie, who married the Dixie Chicks’ Emily Erwin in 1999. "I was a little wild in those days, and people would call me that, so when we were looking for a title, I just thought that would be a good one. Then it wound up as the title of the CD and on the t-shirts, and I thought, it’s kind of stupid to have something out front and not have a song by that title, so I decided to write one. I’ve been thinking in retrospect about writing a new song on each new record with the title of the previous record; that’s kind of a cool songwriting challenge."


That may sound irreverent, but the fact is, Robison takes his songwriting seriously. "I usually come up with the place first and go from there," he notes. "Everything is so visual to me that the process is more like painting a picture to me than writing a song. It’s kind of like watching a movie where they’ll show an empty street, and then all of a sudden people just show up walking around the street; that’s kind of how it happens for me. I see a place, and then everything else just comes from there."


Complementing these vivid portraits is a trio of well-selected covers. "Sweet Inspiration" comes from fellow Texans, the Hollisters ("I heard that and thought I ‘d love to cover that and put my own spin on it"), while "Comes To Me Naturally" and Step Right Up’s first single, "I Want You Bad," come from NRBQ – "one of my favorite old bands," Charlie says. "I think there are so many great old rock-n-roll songs that haven’t been mined that would make such good country songs, and "I Want You Bad" was just one of them; I just changed it up a little bit."


Yet whether he’s singing a cover or one of his own creations, Charlie makes it his own, his lean drawl bringing to each one the sharp edge of personal experience, the wry insight of a veteran journalist and the skills of a seasoned musician. "True communication," country music authority Robert K. Oermann calls it, and indeed, though Robison can rock out as hard as anyone, it’s that inborn ability to tell a story that, as much as the pedal steel guitar and the fiddle, links his music inseparably with the best of country music’s traditions.


He may not be single any more, but Charlie Robison is still the life of the party. "I can’t help it, ‘cause it’s in my blood," goes a line in "It Comes To Me Naturally," and though it’s not a song about making music, the statement could serve as his motto. Whether in song or in person, he says what’s on his mind with a sly grin and a down-home charm that only a dead man could resist.

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