Oh, brother

Charlie and Bruce Robison make their country family-style

For years, Bruce had felt like a failure at basketball, at school, at whatever job he took to pay the bills; he says he had gotten used to "being so mediocre, so sub-par." But when his brother insisted they begin performing their own material, he was liberated; no more hiding behind other people's music--and his own insecurities. When "I started writing songs," he says, "all the doors just started to open."

After establishing reputations around Austin, the Robisons signed in 1995 to the small Vireo label and released their first records. Charlie ended up being courted and signed by the Nashville division of Warner Bros. Records, for whom he recorded an album produced by Nashville veteran Josh Leo. But he wasn't happy with the record--he felt it was too slick, too much like the typical product that falls off Nashville's assembly line--and begged out of the deal.

But Charlie managed to fail upward: He and Bruce attracted the interest of Sony Nashville, which had started the Lucky Dog imprint to make inroads into the burgeoning "alt.country" movement. The label picked up Bruce's second record, Wrapped, which he'd released on his own Boar's Nest label, and then re-cut some tracks before reissuing it. Charlie made his own second disc for Lucky Dog as well. Both records were produced by Texas country producer-of-the-moment Lloyd Maines (Bad Livers, the Derailers), a once-and-future member of Joe Ely's band.

The title of Charlie's disc, Life of the Party, may be slightly misleading; it's an often upbeat affair, but doesn't exactly drive home drunk. Rather, Charlie's that guy sitting in an armchair with a beer, spinning tales with a delicious sense of irony. In fact, if John Prine were still a young buck and hailed from Texas, he'd probably make an album like this. After kicking off with a lilting Cajun tale, "Poor Man's Son," the disc settles into a modern country-rock mode that suits Charlie's slightly warped observations nicely. On "Sunset Boulevard," he ruminates on how he might be elegantly wasted in Los Angeles--hanging out with Charlie Sheen and having the National Enquirer "spread a rumor I was gay"--if his gal were to break his heart. "Barlight" cleverly fashions a honky-tonk nursery rhyme, while on "You're Not The Best," he cheekily tells his lover she's "the best that I can do." He even approaches Dylan-esque realms on "Waiting For The Mail," and overall updates the country musical and lyrical currency into something smarter and tougher than your usual alt.country cliches.

Bruce comes off as the more romantic and contemplative of the two on Wrapped. In a parallel move, this disc starts out in Cajun country as well with "Rayne, Louisiana," a duet with Charlie that resembles the country-soul of John Hiatt. And like Charlie, he's got a clever honky-tonker, "12 Bar Blues." The main tone of the collection, however, is heartbreak and desire, slow and mid-tempo tunes whose titles--such as "Angry All The Time," "Desperately," "Go To Your Heart," and "End Like That"--concede the tales told within. There's a strain of old-timey, string-band styles on his version of the Louvin Brothers' "When I Loved You" (a duet with his wife, Kelly Willis) and the two final tracks, "Don't You Ever Call My Name" and "See You Around." Where Charlie's disc is perhaps the more muscular statement, Bruce's leans towards the cerebral. And both albums demonstrate how a country perspective informed by rock and roll can result in sagacious music.

Lucky Dog has treated both with the sort of dignity rare at most major labels, even letting both shoot videos for their albums. Yet the Robisons' ambitions remains simple, practical. "I see people like Steve Earle and Lyle [Lovett], a lot of folks who didn't fit in anywhere and made a career for themselves," Charlie says. "I've never really aspired to be a huge star or anything like that. But I figure, OK, if there's an audience for that, there's an audience for me. I just feel like if you make good music...I realized that if I was going to stay away from mainstream, I was going to have to try to learn to write well enough that you're going to get a crowd whether it's mainstream or not. That's like what Lyle and Steve do--they write so well you can't keep them down. If your music is good, and you get out there and work it, and you sell enough of these indie records, they'll sign you and give you that chance. You only get two or three of their chances in your lifetime, and you have to be ready to take advantage of that."

Similarly, Bruce is focused on what he calls "attainable goals." For him, that means, quite simply, making a living writing, recording, and touring--and being able to live in Austin the rest of his life. "And that's a pretty big goal."

The focus now is on establishing the brothers' own identities, which isn't so easy: Charlie would actually like the brothers to perform together more often, something Bruce is reluctant to do. He fears being overshadowed by his older brother--and what little brother wouldn't?

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