Oh, brother

Charlie and Bruce Robison make their country family-style

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."

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?

"[We are] getting more different all the time," Bruce says. "And our personalities are getting more pronounced in different ways all the time, so it makes it easier for us to do things together. It's one of my main goals to make a record with Charlie, whenever that time comes. I think it's gonna be great too, whenever it makes sense. The Vaughan brothers were a great inspiration in that way. They established their own careers, and then when they made a record, it was really a happening when they did it, and it was special in its own way, and it was a true collaboration. But we've never wanted to be the Bellamy Brothers or anything like that at all. I think we are both too conceited and arrogant for that.

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