Right Man for the Job
Charlie Robison Takes On Nashville's Fan Fair
NASHVILLE -- To talk to folks in Nashville about Charlie Robison is to invite an anatomy lesson. They marvel at the size of his balls. Then they call him an asshole.
"I don't suffer fools easily and never will," says Robison. "I haven't and won't make any apologies for that. Even if I go to bed feeling like something I said may have been over the top, I still have an easier time sleeping than if I wouldn't have said anything at all."
Currently pulling double duty as both mainstream country music's biggest critic and its designated savior, Robison is in the midst of demonstrating to Nashville how much he enjoys a good night's sleep. His latest album, the universally acclaimed Step Right Up, may be on the same label as Billy Gilman, Patty Loveless, and the Dixie Chicks -- Sony Nashville -- but rather than quietly fall in line, he's positioned himself as a one-man "Outlaw Country" revival.
Then again, Nashville is a small town with a big memory. For starters, they remember Robison's appearance at the 1999 Country Radio Seminar. That's where Robison instructed a ballroom full of influential radio programmers to shut up during his set. "I'm the greatest thing you're ever going to see," he announced, "but you probably won't play me because you're too fucking stupid."
They also remember his on-air response to a popular deejay's question about how he felt when wife/Dixie Chick Emily Robison went from blonde to brunette. "Now the cuffs match the collar," he shot back before storming out. More recently, they whispered about a No Depression feature in which he compared leaving Nashville for his Bandera ranch to the long shower one takes after being raped. In the same article, he referred to neo-traditionalist up-and-comer Brad Paisley as "that little moron."
"I felt bad about that one for a few days," admits the 36-year-old Robison. "Then I saw some stuff he said in a magazine about how country needs to go back to a time where people sit on the back porch and eat biscuits and cornbread. The guy really is a fucking moron."
Robison's latest public relations genius was a June 14 article in The Tennessean, Nashville's daily. Titled "Speaking Out" and accompanied by a photo that took up the better part of a page, the feature served as an excellent Robison primer: His wife is a Dixie Chick, his brother Bruce is a singer-songwriter, and his 1998 album, Life of the Party, sold more than 100,000 albums after collecting dust on store shelves for more than a year. Then came the money shots.
There was Robison ranting against trendy "terminal disease songs." There was Robison ranting against chart-topping artists delivering trendy "terminal disease songs." Finally, there was Robison ranting against the misplaced hero worship that stems from both of those phenomena. The latter critique in particular seemed specifically voiced to offend that weekend's attendees of Music Row's annual Fan Fair, "The World's Biggest Country Music Festival."
With approximately 125,000 of the country music faithful in town to meet 'n' greet some of Nashville's biggest names, front page Arts coverage on the order of "Speaking Out" is about as good as it gets. Then again, that Robison agreed to participate in the festival's first three days can be viewed as either a sign of détente or an outright concession. That said, he stayed just long enough for three shows, nearly 40 radio interviews, and a presenters gig at the TNN & CMT Country Weekly Music Awards.
Rather than stick around for the weekend's "carnival," designed to illustrate the bond between country music performers and their fans, Robison opted to leave for an Oklahoma City gig a full day early. For the same reason they didn't send him on the obligatory nationwide tour of country radio stations before releasing Step Right Up, Sony didn't mind Robison skipping town; the inherent danger of Robison pressing flesh with the common Fan Fair attendee outweighed the promotional exposure.
"This is supposed to just be entertainment, and then some guy will say, 'My brother had cancer, and the only thing that kept him happy was playing your song over and over,'" Robison says of meeting fans face-to-face. "A lot of people want to hear that, and I don't. I want to fucking say to them, 'I wrote that song in five minutes and it's about me, not your brother.' I think they're pretty good songs, too, and [I'm] happy they're connecting on some level, but I don't want to know that they have that kind of meaning or responsibility. No thanks."
Not surprisingly, Robison plowed through most of his Fan Fair appearances as a pariah. Jewel and Fort Worth rodeo star Ty Murray held court with Robison at the Country Weekly Music Awards and after hours at the Loews Vanderbilt hotel, but since they're on country's fringes, they had little to lose. More often, his actual colleagues stayed on the other side of green rooms and backstage areas. With Robison, you're either a friend or an enemy. And until Robison truly breaks out, his friendship is no prize considering the risk of guilt by association.
Robison has seemed neither surprised nor hurt by the relative cold shoulder. He knew full well the Tennessean interview would have tongues wagging and his targets hiding in corners. He knew he broke the unwritten law that country stars don't talk shit about other country stars -- particularly up-and-coming country stars working a single to radio.
"It's like Russia during Communism," explains Robison. "The party line is that everything's fine. And I'm not saying I hate country or even Nashville. It's just that I'd love for everybody to sit together and say, 'We can make better music here.' We should try and raise the bar a bit, myself included.
"But you wouldn't believe how insular this town is. I've gone to country radio stations where I've heard them talk about Tracy Lawrence, the country star convicted of beating up his wife. Some of these guys say, 'Know what bothers me about that? Nobody ever asked his side of the story.' These are fucking hillbillies we're dealing with. We're a bunch of dolphins in a world of stupid sharks. I'll always feel like a fish out of water here."
You wouldn't know it from what was being showcased at Fan Fair, but the sharks may be smartening up a bit. The talk on Music Row isn't simply about Charlie Robison becoming a guy that has a few radio hits, but about him becoming the guy that changes the whole face of the game -- the guy that returns credibility, wit, energy, and individuality to an increasingly passionless genre.
Don't Call Me a Fool
"I'm their New Coke," he says warily. "The buzz won't last, but it's what kind of impact you make while it's with you that matters."
Robison says he intends using the buzz to "put as much hay in the barn as possible" -- not so much to cash in as to expand a niche market. He envisions a career path similar to his primary role models: Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, and Dwight Yoakam. All have enjoyed varying amounts of radio play, but their careers have not lived and died by it. Sony Nashville has different plans. Their marketing and promotions muscle seems almost solely focused on radio.
Until recently, the roadblock has been simple: A singer-songwriter fronting what's essentially a rock band is the antithesis of what's hot on country radio. What's hot? The Tennessean sums up current playlists as a mix of "kiddie country, sub-Eagles vocal groups, and ick-worthy power ballads." In fact, country music's post-Shania sales slump has been so prolonged that the Country Music Association recently adopted the self-deprecating slogan, "Country. Admit it. You love it." Robison's slogan is simpler: "Timing is 90% of genius."
"It really is about being at the right place at the right time," he says. "It's that place in music between Warrant and Nirvana. Had music not gotten so bad, Cobain might have been just an underground guy. It's the same thing with George Strait; had country music not been so bad at the time, he would have struggled in the underground. They were incredible talents, but they benefited from great timing."
Great timing is the best explanation for how this year's Fan Fair served as Robison's official coronation. A week before the event, he signed a booking deal with the William Morris Agency. The news landed him on the cover of Pollstar, the concert industry's bible, while Fan Fair provided an opportunity for the firm's New York and Los Angeles advertising and theatrical agents to fly in and see their new signing in person. Their arrival was itself buzzworthy, a sign that somebody other than Sony or Robison believes there will be plenty of options when New Coke fades.
Then there was the Tennessean article. Brad Paisley, Faith Hill, Billy Gilman, Vince Gill, and Alan Jackson were also in town for Fan Fair, but it was Robison that got the Living section's coveted Fan Fair-opening cover story. Perhaps most important, it was the week of Fan Fair that Robison cracked Radio & Records Top 30. Of the 150 mainstream country stations reporting to R&R, 93 were currently playing Robison's cover of NRBQ's "I Want You Bad."
Add that the song's video is in heavy rotation on GAC (Great American Country) and is a Top 10 request on CMT (Country Music Television), and suddenly, Robison is beginning to look less and less radical.
"The joke is that I don't think I've ever been that radical," he posits. "The difference between Nashville and Texas is that the differences in art and music aren't that big of a deal for us. We're used to it. Here, even the slightest difference poses a problem. And if you look at the artists at Fan Fair, it's not that I'm so different, as much as it is that they're all so the same."
Nowhere does that ring more true than at Fan Fair's opening night showcase at Adelphia Coliseum, a 35,000-seat stadium. The show featured Robison on an 11-act bill with labelmates like Gilman, Loveless, Travis Tritt, and Montgomery Gentry. Robison's best moment in the set defied even the most liberal definition of country: Step Right Up's "John O'Reily" is a Pogues-style rave-up that left Fan Fair attendees dancing in the aisles.
"It wound up being a total success," acknowledges Robison. "And it would have been real easy to have said, 'I'm not playing a bullshit bill like this for these people.' When I looked out there, I realized there might be a lot of idiots in that crowd, but there's also a lot of people I can get to -- people I could bring over to this side. Those are the people I want to play for."
Robison may have converted some of the great unwashed with his bait 'n' switch performance at Adelphia, but his long-term goal is considerably more grandiose: to bring a whole new audience toward country. When you peel away the hype and self-interest, it's that goal that has Sony and the rest of Music Row rallying behind him. Nearly every article written about Robison makes the same assessment: Whether you're into country or not, Robison is the type of guy women want to sleep with and men want to drink beer with.
Musically speaking, if Robison manages to convince a even a small percentage of Earle, Yoakam, or Lovett fans that he's only a few steps removed, then there are that many more people buying country music.
"If I could get 5 or 10% of the fans that like that stuff, and maybe 10% of the coolest Brooks & Dunn fans, then that niche is born," theorizes Robison. "That's where I aim to be."
Robison says he also knows exactly which fans he doesn't want to wind up playing for -- the Robert Earl Keen crowd that often seems more interested in the scene than the music.
"Even in Texas, we have only about a 10% ballcap ratio," Robison boasts. "I've passed up fucking cash galore to avoid making a run at those people, but I don't want to trap myself in a place where music isn't fun anymore. I don't have the temperament to play for people so unconcerned with listening."
And while it's not hard to imagine that Robison's success could very well translate into similarly mainstream success for fraternity favorites like Pat Green, Cory Morrow, or Owen Temple, Robison says he doesn't see that happening.
"We're so far above them," claims Robison. "You have to see Pat Green's crowd -- it's all ballcaps, all a certain kind of folk. We're not going to open up a door so wide that educated people or real music fans start liking Pat Green. I'm not worried about that."
Boxers, briefs, or commando?
Out of Your Mind
What's you best memory of Fan Fair so far?
Tell us about the wife ...
Welcome to what passes for radio Q&A at Fan Fair. Each morning and afternoon, artists are invited to "radio tours," where as many as two dozen country radio stations broadcast live from the same building, passing acts down the line for three-to-five minute interviews with personalities like "Bandy, Baily & Breakfast Boy." It's an inane, but necessary drill. For Robison, it's a chance to win over a few deejays and perhaps prove he's not the disagreeable guy they've read about. Half the stations are happy to see him because they're playing his single. The other half wind up testing his patience with more questions about his wife than his music.
"It's frustrating," he admits. "Whereas it might be more satisfying to storm out, getting angry about it is like worrying that I'm going to die eventually. You could worry about it or get mad, but it's only hurting yourself. But if you sit there and try to be smarter than them and turn things back around to your music every chance you get, next year there's going to be fewer questions about her and more about me."
Indeed, at no point during his Fan Fair radio tours does Robison turn snippy -- even when the obvious subtext of most interviews is that he has his marriage to thank for his golden boy status. One deejay even asked why he bothers performing at all when his wife is so wealthy. Flashing a fake smile or shooting a silly answer across the mixing board instead of throwing a punch isn't selling out, Robison says, it's playing the game to win.
"I want to be a success at this, and half of that is choosing your battles," he says. "Finally coming to terms with the fact that some of these guys aren't going to like me was a big deal. For a long time, staying at home, not rehearsing, and bitching that 'the Man' was keeping me down was a lot easier."
That "long time" Robison refers to is the 11 years he spent in Austin. Eleven years in which he gigged regularly, released an independent album, and landed a deal with Warner Bros. that resulted in an unreleased album. Even after signing with Sony, Robison still says living in Austin made him feel lazy.
"I'm not gonna just bash Nashville and say everything is okay back home," he says. "The reason I moved to San Antonio is that everyone in Austin made it so easy for me to blame everybody else for my lack of success. The notion is that nobody is successful because they're making good music and there's no place for good music in the world. But it's when I stopped thinking like that and started waking up before 1pm that things began to change. I didn't start selling out, I started working."
Songwriting aside, Robison's largest post-Austin focus has been perfecting his live show.
"There's a certain amount of natural charisma with guys like Lyle or Steve Earle, but there's also a huge amount of studying they do," he explains. "Performing is like perfecting a baseball swing: 'What did I do to miss them tonight? What can I do to make things better the next time?' The reason the Backstreet Boys or N'Sync are successful is that those motherfuckers work their ass off to put on a great show. I hate their music, but they work their asses off. There was a point I realized I hadn't put in that work. And a lot of that had to do with living in Austin."
In radio interviews and onstage, Robison has taken to claiming San Antonio as home. Not only does it ignore the time he spent in Austin, but it's a bit disingenuous; he and the wife have a home in San Antonio, but they spend most of their time together on a 1,000-acre ranch just outside Bandera.
"It's not a 'fuck you' to Austin," he maintains. "It's just that my roots are closer to San Antonio, and I love the city so much I want to be identified with it. And there's no pretense in San Antonio. Our house is in a wealthy neighborhood, but there's no Mercedes Benzes in the driveways. It's all five- or six-year-old Cadillacs. Nobody is trying to keep up with anybody.
"In Austin, I never felt cool enough to be there. I never felt I could follow whatever trend was coming in there. There may have been a time I got too comfortable in Austin, but truthfully, I always felt out of place in Austin. I never felt accepted by Austin."
Robison says he suspects he's not alone in his dislike of the cynicism he believes plagues Austin. He says that in the months before the death of Doug Sahm, the man whose final album included the track "I Can't Go Back to Austin,"he and the late Texas Tornado had plans to start a band together in Austin. The best illustration of what's wrong with Austin, according to Robison, was a record review in The Austin Chronicle. The review in question was a two-star snub of brother Bruce's 1999 album, Long Way Home From Anywhere, which took the local singer-songwriter to task for "fratboy fodder" and a visit to "James Taylorville."
"To me, Bruce's record was one of the most important records I've heard in a long time," opines Robison. "I've never seen anyone miss the point of a record more. Pandering to the frat crowd? It was a brilliant record, and it could have really made up for a lot of the flavor-of-the-month things Austin was becoming. It made me so mad they missed the point so much. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. It was proof I no longer had a place in Austin. I knew I had to cut the umbilical cord."
Charlie Robison might not call Austin home anymore, but he clearly cares how Austin perceives his run at success.
It Comes to Me Naturally
"I wish people could see that we're the same band in Nashville that we are in Texas," he says. "We play the same shows. Nobody is dressing up to play the part."
That's not Robison blowing smoke toward Texas. For all the talk about fine-tuning his live show, playing the game, and his concerns about being labeled a sellout, if you've seen one Robison performance, you've seen 'em all. Case in point: His Wednesday night gig at Nashville's Exit Inn may have been more important than the stadium set the following evening; as a non-Fan Fair show, it was a chance for William Morris agents, Sony, and radio programmers to witness him playing to his own crowd.
It was also a chance for them to gauge Robison's progress. It would have been an excellent time to pander, to turn in a short, by-the-numbers set, but the Exit Inn may as well have been Stubb's or the Continental Club. Not only were Robison & Co. the same band, but the crowd response was also remarkably familiar: They laughed at "You're Not the Best," swayed to "Loving County," and sang every word of "My Hometown" and "Barlight." And just when you thought only the material from Life of the Party would go over like gangbusters, Step Right Up's "The Wedding Song" stole the show.
On Step Right Up, "The Wedding Song" is perhaps most notable for its featured guest, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines. She and Robison turn in a performance that's both funny and heartbreaking. Robison claims to have written the song in two minutes while in the john, but it's clearly the LP's centerpiece, a rousing condemnation of folks who marry their high school sweethearts. There are those at Sony that believe it will eventually become the song that Robison is best identified with.
There are others who believe no matter how much radio changes and despite Maines' profile, it will remain too dark for significant airplay. Either way, Robison's standard live intro includes an apology for having to sing her part. At the Exit Inn, said intro provides ample opportunity for not one, but a half-dozen women in the front to volunteer their services.
On a whim, clearly surprised they know the song, Robison invites one woman onstage. Not only does she know every word of the tune, she even improvises Robison-style. "I wasn't prepared for the weight of this ring," is the song's payoff, and between "this" and "ring," the woman throws in "motherfuckin'."
"It was a pretty amazing moment," laughs Robison. "It's the kind of thing we'll talk about for a while."
It's also proof that Robison has become a first-class songwriter. His fans don't just know choruses, they know verses. In Texas, Robison performing "My Hometown" is like Robert Earl Keen or Joe Ely performing "The Road Goes On Forever"; Robison simply turns the microphone toward the crowd for audience karaoke. What doesn't stand out at the Exit Inn is the one number that should: "I Want You Bad."
While Step Right Up's first single is undeniably catchy, it lacks the personality of Robison's best work. Sure, covering an NRBQ album cut instead of a song a Music Row veteran wrote in a cubicle sends something of a message, but it's something of a problematic one: The song being used to introduce Robison outside Texas isn't one he wrote. He wasn't even that thrilled about recording it.
"It should be pretty obvious that if I wasn't trying to make a run at radio, this song wouldn't have been on the album," he sighs. "I love the song and am proud of it. And it's served its purpose; it's gotten a lot of people to listen to this record that wouldn't have. But I think everyone knows if I were making a record solely for myself, it wouldn't be there. It's up to you to decide whether that's selling out or not, but I did it not to get in Nashville's good graces. I did it to get my other songs heard."
Spend any time with Robison and it's obvious that respect as a songwriter tops his list of goals. Spend any time around Nashville and you'll see why: Music Row goes to Bruce Robison for songs, Charlie for charisma. In fact, after the latter Robison canceled one of his three Fan Fair radio tours, an organizer left holding the bag took it upon herself to describe the difference between Bruce and Charlie: "One's a songwriter and the other just marries well."
"I feel like I'm a better songwriter than Bruce," says the elder Robison a few days later. "But to me, it's apples and oranges. Bruce has never needed the instant gratification of the crowd as much I do. He's happy at the Cactus Cafe. I'm not. And his songs are very different than mine. Bruce writes about himself and has no qualms about it.
"I write about myself, but I put them in the third person. I mask my struggles by making them someone else's. I'm the only one that really knows 'Loving County' is about me ... that I was going out with a wealthy woman when my career wasn't going well. It's a metaphor for what you'll do in your life to be someone you're not. My writing goes deeper than it looks."
Maybe so, but isn't "a better songwriter than Bruce" the line Robison knows will spark controversy back in Austin? Is he sending some sort of message back to his brother?
"I don't want that message going back home," he states. "The only person that needs to hear that message is me. I said it because I need to believe it. It's to psych myself up. The only way I can feel like I can continue to write at this level is to have high opinion of myself. I used to fear the well running dry.
"Then I wrote six songs in two days, four weeks before cutting the album. I feel like I'm just learning to write. After two records, I have a dozen songs in a 75-minute set people know every fucking word to. For the first time, I feel like I'm going to be writing well for a long time."
Of Robison's Fan Fair appearances, the TNN & CMT Country Weekly Music Awards could have easily been the biggest disaster. A few weeks earlier, Robison wasn't shy about telling Sony Nashville he didn't want to accept the music channel's offer to present an award during the televised ceremony. In turn, Sony wasn't shy about reminding Robison he typically gets his way.
"They were definitely more adamant about it than usual," he says.
Apparently, Sony thought it would be a slap in CMT's face not to offer the show an artist the station has been playing. Unfortunately, the bulk of what CMT plays is exactly the kind of mainstream fare Robison dislikes so much. Robison showed up in an Armani suit anyway.
Even so, Robison refused to step onstage blind. While waiting in the wings to present the "Discovery Award" on the televised broadcast, he and co-presenter Terri Clark agreed to crack open the envelope and sneak a look at the winner. It's then they discovered Billy Gilman, the platinum-selling, squeaky-clean 13-year-old behind schmaltzy hits like "One Voice" and "She's My Girl," had beat out nominees Jessica Andrews, Montgomery Gentry, Phil Vassar, and Shedaisy. How much does Robison calculate every move? Apparently a lot.
"It put me in a tough place," reveals Robison. "I immediately remembered watching him win an award a month earlier where he high-fived everyone in sight. So what do I do now? I wasn't going to high-five him. I also knew I couldn't snub him outright either. As dumb as I was gonna feel being seen shaking his hand, snubbing him would have made me feel like a bigger idiot. He's just a fucking kid. He doesn't know what's happening to him."
Gilman wound up jumping in Clark's arms. Robison was less welcoming: He greeted him with a stiff-armed Heisman handshake. But handshake or not, what Robison feared most was that the show gave the impression he enjoyed rubbing elbows with the very acts he's on the record as disliking. It's not just a matter of hypocrisy, but of integrity.
"Once you've given up your integrity, you can't get it back," says Robison. "People won't forgive you."
Robison counts only two times that Nashville interests have put his integrity in serious jeopardy. The most recent, during the recording of Step Right Up, he successfully fought off Sony's suggestion that he record a typically hokey Nashville-penned novelty song. He cut half the song and refused to go any further. Six years ago, while making what he thought was his major-label debut for Warner Bros., he didn't stand quite as firmly.
"I made a lot of compromises," he admits. "I never felt right while making that record. And what terrified me most at the time wasn't losing my record deal, but that the record would actually come out. It was awful. And I never wanted to feel that way again."
That he's been holding firm and talking tough ever since is no coincidence. In theory, by coming off so brazen and stubborn, Sony's less likely to approach him with songs or marketing plans he's not going to like. By the same token, Robison's the first to admit that the from-the-hip, anti-establishment image he's cultivating is just as likely to cost him friends and opportunities. In this way, his outspokenness is also a defense mechanism; Robison has often said a career on par with his wife's scares him to death.
"What Emily has accomplished is a big inspiration," he says. "The girls stuck to their guns, told Sony to fuck off all the time, and worked their asses off. But I'm not interested in something that huge. Again, I want something in line with Lyle's career. I don't want to have to argue over whether there's a single every time I make a record. I don't like pushing singles and waiting by the phone Mondays to see where it charted.
"It's already scary. I just signed with William Morris. Sony is putting all this money behind me, and I have a bus that costs a zillion dollars. More importantly, I have a band that has faith in me. Unless you don't think about the 10 or 11 people on the bus, management, and the label, it's gonna be scary. If you don't get out of bed in the morning, it's not about you. It's about people following you off the cliff. They could be doing something else with their lives, but there're putting their ass on the line for you. Damn right that's scary."
It's too soon to say whether Robison's fears are justified. Should Robison's single stall, it wouldn't be the first time radio programmers weren't fully on board a Music Row coronation. And while there will be other singles and other albums, Robison considers himself a live-for-the-moment kind of guy. So what did he make of his three days at Fan Fair? What's there to take away from all the hype and hoopla?
"All I'm going to take away from Fan Fair is that this band is one step closer to getting a fucking raise," he says. "And that this music has reached more people without us whoring ourselves. I haven't felt bad about anything that happened while we were here. It was one more small battle and one more small victory. Sony was proud, and that means more setup -- them working harder for us to do what we want to do.
"In the meantime, we're having fun and doing something different. I don't remember the last time we walked offstage without having a good time. The crowds are larger and more rabid everywhere we go. We're building this thing up to where we can make a living at this. It's almost evangelical. Everyone feels like they're spreading the word. And we're getting that audience to spread the word too. We're really starting to see the fruits of our labors and it feels great. That's more than enough to keep me going."