Sharing production duties with Charlie on Step Right Up is one of Nashvilles
hottest producers, Blake Chancey, (Dixie Chicks, David Ball and Mary
Chapin Carpenter). The result is music thats at once robust and
gritty much like Robison himself. Unlike the "Music Row
Manilows" filling the airwaves, Charlie Robisons view of
life has room for its failures and tragedies; he knows that loves
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,
theres too much talent, from the road-tested players who do the
lions 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. Hes earned his success the hard way, and hasnt
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 Charlies appeal.
Like its predecessors, Step Right Up highlights Charlies songwriting
as much as his talents as a singer of songs. Hes responsible for
eight of the albums dozen tracks, writing six by himself and another
two with his brother Bruce. "Hes about the only person I
really write with," Charlie says. "I used to write with a
lot of different people, but I just dont enjoy it that much. Bruce
and I come from the same place, so its 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." "Its hard for us to be
real serious around one another," Charlie laughs, "its
kind of a jocular atmosphere when we get together, so thats what
comes out of it."
Charlies 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 sisters 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 thats one of my favorites,
and theres a lot of Bandera in there, too," he adds. "Of
course, with all the politics of the last 4 years, it seems like no
ones 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 elses shoulder when theyre doing a lot of bad
stuff themselves but its 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 thats 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, its kind
of stupid to have something out front and not have a song by that title,
so I decided to write one. Ive been thinking in retrospect about
writing a new song on each new record with the title of the previous
record; thats 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. Its
kind of like watching a movie where theyll show an empty street,
and then all of a sudden people just show up walking around the street;
thats 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 Ups 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 havent
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 hes 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, its 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 musics traditions.
He may not be single any more, but Charlie Robison is still the life
of the party. "I cant help it, cause its in my
blood," goes a line in "It Comes To Me Naturally," and
though its not a song about making music, the statement could
serve as his motto. Whether in song or in person, he says whats
on his mind with a sly grin and a down-home charm that only a dead man