By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It should be the stuff that Nashville's dampest dreams are made of: two strapping singin' and songwritin' brothers from a wild-west small town in Texas. Both grew up ranching in the Hill Country, working on an oil pipeline, and playing in a local band before both won sports scholarships to college. One is married to a beautiful, well-respected singer; the other is engaged to a lovely young gal from a country act currently sitting pretty at the top of the charts. Hell--put them boys in Stetsons and some crisp, tight Wranglers, get 'em into the studio together, shoot a video for Country Music Television that gets the cowgirls all hot in the saddle, and start opening off-shore accounts. Looks like a winner.
But Bruce and Charlie Robison will have none of that. Although these two siblings from Bandera, by way of Austin, make contributions to each other's albums and support each other as only brothers can, they are no flesh-and-blood novelty. They're not this year's Everly Brothers or tomorrow's Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan. And despite the fact both Robisons are signed to Sony Music's Lucky Dog imprint--which has released Bruce's second album, Wrapped, and Charlie's sophomore effort Life of the Party--they're still Texas country, not Tennessee pop, meaning the closest they'll get to radio is in their cars. Fact is, they're already veterans of the music business, despite their relatively rookie status: Charlie has already bailed out on one Nashville deal, and Bruce seems almost surprised he's got his own deal, having previously paid his rent as a writer, not a performer.
For both Robison brothers, the mere fact of their careers is proof enough the talented don't always come up empty-handed, even where Nashville's concerned. "I'm surprised, in a way, that I ended up being a songwriter and a singer," Bruce says. "It didn't seem to be an attainable goal when I was a kid. Those people who made records and stuff were from another planet as far as I was concerned. My family was very working-class, journeyman types. After I quit school, they hoped I would join a union or something."
The brothers Robison--which they pronounce Rah-bison, not Row-bison--grew up in Bandera, the self-proclaimed "Cowboy Capital of the World." Bandera's unlike so many other small Texas towns, which seem to exist in time capsules--or behind protective glass. With its myriad dude ranches and bed-and-breakfast hospitality, Bandera is sort of a fantasyland for outsiders who want a taste of old-time Texas...without getting dirt in their mouths. "It's kind of special, in that it's a small Texas town and yet there's lots of tourists there, so it's a real open-minded place," Bruce explains. "People are used to seeing anybody from Japan or England or China or wherever the hell. It's pretty cosmopolitan in its own backwards kind of way."
Similarly, the Robison household boasted fairly eclectic musical tastes. "We lived out on a ranch, and every morning I would wake up at 7 o'clock with Janis Joplin blaring or Stone Poneys or something like that," recalls Charlie, who is engaged to Dixie Chick Emily Erwin. "It was always there. My grandmother's a huge music fan. Any time of the day, music would be a huge integral part of what was going on."
By the time they were in high school, Charlie (the oldest brother) and Bruce were playing in a band that covered everything from Black Sabbath to "Whiskey River." Both of them won sports scholarships to college--Charlie playing football, Bruce in basketball--and eventually dropped out.
"I guess it was at the point when I was a sophomore in high school that I decided I wanted to do music," Charlie says. "I really didn't want to go play college football that bad. I wanted to stay and keep doing music, but I felt like, 'You're getting free school, you'd be stupid not to play.' It was a good experience, but then I was ready to get back to music."
For Bruce, the ambitions took a bit longer to jell. "I didn't think it was something that was within my capabilities," he says. "Those people I idolized, like Waylon and Willie, they weren't real people. When I was a kid, there were people like that, and people like me. I never really thought that people would want to listen to my voice. It was a long and slow transformation to get to that level of conceit, which it kinda is: I'm gonna book a show and people are gonna pay money and come in and watch me for two hours. For me that's a pretty conceited notion, a pretty arrogant proposition."
By 1987, they'd both left college and landed in Austin, and were trying to figure out how to get started in music. Charlie charmed his way into the then-popular roots-rock band Two Hoots & a Holler. Later, both brothers landed in Chaparral, a traditional-leaning country band that sparked the country-dance scene that's still a big part of Austin night life. It was in that band where the brothers began performing their own songs, with Charlie instigating the move.
"He was always the one who did a lot of the things I talked about," Bruce recalls. "It might have been me who first talked about coming to Austin and seeing what would happen, and then we both did. Then it was me who first talked about joining a band, and he went out and did it, made friends with the guys in Two Hoots, and just got in the band. And I just couldn't believe it. Then I was talking about starting my own band, and he went and did it. And that in turn would definitely push me to go ahead and have the courage to do it. He's always been the one to jump in there and have the confidence to do the things that I was thinking about and talking about, and saying, one of these days I'm going to do that."