If the title of Charlie Robison's brand-new album, High Life, is to be taken literally, it would make a great deal of sense. The Bandera-raised Robison continues to do things on his own terms. With a dedicated fan base and a stellar album yet again reminding people why he's one of Texas' beloved performers, it's tough to imagine Robison being too low when he sounds like he's having such a blast.
This past Tuesday, however, speaking to us from his home in San Antonio, Robison was battling a cold and coughing his way through the release day of the new album. For many country artists, the date of an album's release is a regularly occurring affair, but for Robison, who's been recording since 1996, record launches have been anything but automatically annual. High Life is only Robison's sixth studio record and his first since 2009's excellent Beautiful Day (there have been two live albums mixed in). But for an artist living the high life, being rushed by industry expectations isn't something terribly concerning.
"Music isn't math," Robison says as his eight year-old daughter, who also has a case of the sniffles, coughs in the background. "You just know when you need to put a new record out, and you have to do it at your own pace. My management, or the record label, will sometimes say things like, 'Hey, it's time for another record,' but I just don't feel pressured by any of the so-called rules that have been set forth in any shape, form or fashion."
Now with High Life out and sitting in the top 15 of the iTunes Country Albums chart a couple of days after its unleashing, it's easy to look back over the half-dozen studio records and see the length between releases has meant there's little fat to be trimmed in terms of each album having a solid collection of quality tunes. Of course, Robison prefers quality over quantity.
"I feel like if you, as an artist, get on the industry treadmill of automatically putting out an album every year or two, you'll end up with a lot of throwaway stuff that's really just filler on albums, and that's fine for some people. I've found that my favorite artists, like John Prine, are the ones who took time between records to make them right."
For an interesting twist, almost two decades into a successful career that's seen Robison flirt with legitimate Top 40 success and become tabloid fodder, thanks to his marriage to and subsequent divorce from Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks, he chose this album to experiment with something new. For the first time, not one of the nine songs on this album came from his own pen. Robison chose to cover songs from a diverse group of legendary performers such as Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, The Band and Doug Sahm, among others. His well-known brother Bruce Robison and his rising-star sister Robin Ludwick offer three of the record's numbers (the latter of which offers possibly the album's best line, in "Monte Carlo": "Oh, Darlin', I love you, like the rednecks love to fight, like cowboys love Saturday night.").
"I didn't, in any way, set out to make a covers album," Robison says. "I don't even like to call it a covers record. It's just a record I didn't happen to write any songs for. My last record, which I recorded during my divorce, was so emotionally taxing and it got to where music almost wasn't fun for a while. That feeling really ate into my life and it was hard to sing about that so often. For this record, I just wanted to have fun and have some songs that I could translate onstage and have people see how much fun this record was for us to make."
In a skillful stroke, the songs, regardless of which artist recorded them originally, sound and feel very much like they belong on a Charlie Robison record. The songs that most brightly display what Robison arguably does better than any other current star of the Texas country scene are Cooder's tragi-comic gem "Girls From Texas" (written by Cliff Chambers, Jimmy Holiday and James Lewis) and Sahm's "Nuevo Laredo." Both interpretations of the classic songs are complete with vibrant conjunto instrumentation and energy. Given the importance of conjunto music to the multicultural heritage of Texas, it's strange to Robison that so little of these time-tested sounds can be heard on regional radio these days. He feels that absence is a part of a general shift away from the defining characteristics that helped music made in Texas seem different from music played in other areas to begin with.
"All of these songs are ones that have percolated with me over the years," Robison explains. "Texas music, currently, has drifted away from the guys that started it all. If you asked your garden-variety twentysomething Texas music fan from 20 years ago about Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark, they'd probably be able to tell you about them. These days, I don't think that's the case. I want to turn the younger fans of this red-dirt, Texas country, Americana or whatever it's called, kind of music onto guys like Doug Sahm and Ry Cooder."
Displaying the youthful, and somewhat naughty, humor that's a regular part of his stage show, Robison adds, "Most young fans now hear 'Cooder' and think I'm talking about a part on a woman."
A combination of Sahm's versatility and a colorful upbringing serve as prime inspirations for an album that's splattered with the words and notes of a couple generations' worth of influential musicians. The 49-year-old Robison hopes to make revered but less trendy icons more relevant to the current crop of up-and-comers.
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"A lot of the young people playing music in Texas today really have no idea where so-called Texas music came from," he says. "I grew up in South Texas, and I grew up on Doug Sahm. I've made it a point to have German-inspired sounds and Tejano sounds from early on with my first couple of records. South Texas was a melting pot when I was a kid. I went to polka dances with my grandparents, and then I'd see Doug Sahm play it all. He was my guy because he could play the most traditional country song, then an amazing blues song followed by a conjunto tune and a German polka and do it all perfectly in one concert. I loved that stuff."
Ultimately, High Life is a comprehensive package that serves as a portrait of an artist having fun while he's saying what he wants to say in the manner in which he wants to say it, regardless of expectation. Just as simple as his philosophy behind when to put out an album and what songs to put on said album is, Robison plays it straight and clear when describing what this collection means to him.
"This record represents why I started playing music in the first place."