Bruce Robison With his brand-new release, Country Sunshine, Austin-based Bruce Robison has taken a bold, confident step away from a major label contract in a move designed to afford him more direct control over his material and artistic direction. But if his own Boar’s Nest tag and the more traditional country sound bring a fresh, new look and feel to the Bandera, Texas native’s work, the quality of his esteemed songwriting continues to etch a steady, upward arc.
Robison’s “Lonely Too” graced Lee Ann Womack’s breakthrough, multi-platinum I Hope You Dance.
His two fertile hit-mines for Sony’s Lucky Dog imprint (1998’s Wrapped and 1999’s Long Way Home From Anywhere) yielded Tim McGraw’s mondo-hit “Angry All The Time” (on Set This Circus Down, with Faith Hill), along with choice cuts for Gary Allen, Kelly Willis, Charlie Robison, Ilsa DeLang, Tyler England and Monte Warden. Country Sunshine is jam-packed with even more worthy treasures; whether they come to you through Robison’s own tender, aching tenor or via the pipes of his growing list of admirers, 11 songs on the record each boast the heart and soul–the substance–to stay around for a good long while.
The inescapable crowd-pleaser is the heady, gently-goosing “What Would Willie Do?”
-a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek canonization of the Lone Star State’s favorite hemp-tokin’ picnic host. Even the most humorless (if such a creature exists) Nelson fan will recognize the head-shaking admiration behind the playful digs, and will be joining in on the chorus before the first play is over. If this ain’t a hit, we all gotta consider relocating to another planet.
Apart from that gem of inspired silliness, Robison runs the gamut of country styles on Country Sunshine, including some beautiful co-writes with Allison Moorer (“Can’t Get There From Here”), Dixie Chick Marty Seidel (“Anyone But Me”), and Sean Michaels (“Bed Of Ashes”). Bruce and wife Kelly Willis team up on the wrenching “Friendless Marriage,” a classic pull-out-the-stops tear jerker a la George & Tammy, Conway & Loretta or Gram & Emmylou.
Interestingly enough, it was Music City’s current penchant for the “arena rock” drum sound which ultimately led to the cozy, classic country vibe found on Country Sunshine.
“I’d had it all set up about how I was gonna do this record with Sony,” said Austin-based Robison, “and then, when I decided to leave them, I kinda had to come up with a Plan B. The records weren’t sounding like I wanted them to–the records in Nashville were all sounding like English rock records, ya know? Once we’d get to the point of cutting vocals, I’d be screamin’, and I didn’t even know why.”
A casual inventory of Bruce’s favorite records kept turning up the name of veteran session drummer Kenny Malone, “and so I called him, and I said, Kenny, you don’t know me, but I’m a songwriter from Texas, and you played on all the records that I loved the sound of–Don Williams, Crystal Gayle, Waylon Jennings. I need your help.’ And he said, ‘Get this studio, call these guys, and we’ll all go in there and we’ll cut it’. And that’s just what we did…”
‘This studio’ was Jack Clement’s funky, vintage Cowboy Arms Hotel And Recording Spa; ‘these guys’ were a blue-ribbon group made up of Malone, master of all-things-stringed Dan Dugmore (Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, etc.), stand-up bassist Dennis Crouch, pianist Pete Wasner, organist Ian McLagan (Faces, Rolling Stones) and ace harmonicat Mickey Raphael (yikes!–what will Willie do?…). Singers Kelly Willis and Amy Noelle Farris lent their voices and helped keep the room from getting too ugly.
The result, not coincidentally, is a casual groove reminiscent of the great Don Williams, especially on such tracks as “Blame It On Me,” “Tonight” and “Anyone But Me.” “
Don has always been a huge influence on me,” Robison admitted. “My dad listened to his 8-tracks constantly when I was a kid, and I’ve been looking for that sound. Kind of easy-going, but well-crafted, and they moved along nicely, too–real intimate, real dry. ‘Intimate’ was the word that I was using with all of these guys, and they understood, because by the time we got to cutting the vocals, I could almost whisper them, like Don used to do.
“I’ve played with a lot of A-list drummers,” he continued, “a ton of drummers–and Kenny is the first guy in 15 years who listened to the lyrics and asked what the song was about before we cut it. I really felt like he was crafting the whole feel of it to suit whatever I was trying to say. That seems like such a simple thing, but nobody does it.”
Robison’s older brother Charlie has gained notoriety and chart-climbing success with his latest Lucky Dog release, Step Right Up, but Bruce found himself uncomfortable and at odds with Nashville’s star-making process. Early this year, he asked for–and received–release from his Lucky Dog deal.
“The main thing that I make my money from is songwriting,” said Robison, “and I left the label to concentrate on that end of it.
This affords me the freedom to do that. “I just felt like the time was right,” he continued. “The way the Internet’s going, it feels like the frontier with all these things kinda bubbling underground. I really wanted to be a part of that rather than a cog in the wheel of–what are there, four major record labels now? It never really felt good being a part of that.”
An ironic, unexpected bonus of his new-found freedom is that, by backing away from the major label recording grind, Robison has made his sharpest, most organic and most beautiful album yet. Bruce Robison has already established himself as one of country music’s most exciting young songwriting talents. With Country Sunshine, he’s more than ready to extend and expand upon that well-deserved rep with a set of tunes whose melodies and sharply-drawn lyrics will linger in the skull long after the ol’ music box has shut down.