Charlie Robison: Singer-Songwriter of Country Music

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Charlie Robison. a rowdy lynchpin of Texas country, dies at 59”:

Charlie Robison, a singer-songwriter whose wry, rough-edged music helped fuel a Texas country revival in the early 2000s, offering an irreverent alternative to Nashville’s radio-friendly sound, died at a hospital in San Antonio.

Mr. Robison had announced his retirement from music in 2018, saying that a throat surgery left him “with the permanent inability to sing,” but he began making a comeback last year, with concerts booked through January 2024.

Following in the footsteps of Texas troubadours like Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver and Townes Van Zandt, Mr. Robison wrote songs about hustlers, drinkers and lovable losers, like the oil-field worker who guns down a rich woman for her wedding ring in “Loving County,” the Irish boxer who double-crosses a gangster in “John O’Reilly” and the debt-ridden police officer who, seeking to “live the good life and drive a new Corvette,” robs a bank in “Desperate Times,” only to be turned in by his wife.

Although he made the country Top 40 just once, with his 2001 cover of the NRBQ song “I Want You Bad,” Mr. Robison was a beloved musician in his home state, where he began performing in Austin in the mid-1980s and became a fixture of dance halls like Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth. Fans knew every word to songs like “My Hometown,” in which he sang of a week spent working on an oil pipeline for “80 hours, making time and a half,” before driving home in the heat and spending his earnings “all on pot.”

Singer-songwriter Kevin Fowler, a fellow Texan, said that Mr. Robison “paved the road” for two generations of Texas country musicians, including contemporaries such as Pat Green, Jack Ingram and Cory Morrow and younger artists like Parker McCollum, Cody Johnson and Cody Jinks.

“His voice was so unique. It was something refreshing,” Fowler said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t what was going on at the time — all the slick Nashville stuff. Here’s a guy with raw, rough edges.”

He added that Mr. Robison could be charmingly ornery onstage, dropping f bombs while refusing to project a more sophisticated image in the mold of stars like Garth Brooks. “That’s really what helped fuel this scene, was the authenticity of it,” Fowler said. “It wasn’t about going out and kissing radio [butts] and trying to get air play, it was about the live show and connecting to fans. I think we just took what Willie [Nelson] was doing and took it to the next level.”

“Charlie,” he added, “was one of the granddaddies of the whole thing.”

Charles Fitzgerald Robison was born in Houston and grew up on his family’s ranch outside the Hill Country town of Bandera. As a boy, he went to polka dances with his grandparents, visited country-western dance halls with his parents and fell in love with the idiosyncratic music of Texas singer Doug Sahm.

“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,” said Mr. Robison, who would incorporate Mexican, Celtic and bluegrass sounds in his own work. (Country music seemed to run in the family: His sister Robyn Ludwick also became a singer-songwriter, as did his younger brother, Bruce, known for songs including “Travelin’ Soldier” and “Angry All the Time.”)

Mr. Robison played football at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos — “Don’t think I seen a single classroom,” he later sang, “but I drank a lot of beer” — and, after he was sidelined by an injury, dropped out and moved to Austin to focus on music. He played in country bands including Chaparral and Millionaire Playboys before making his solo debut with “Bandera” (1995), which brought him a record deal with Warner Bros.

By his account, the label sent him packing when he refused to move to Nashville and to add more radio-friendly songs to a planned album.

“I don’t suffer fools easily and never will,” he told the Austin Chronicle in 2001, two years after he stunned radio programmers in Nashville by telling them they were probably “too … stupid” to put his music on the air. “I haven’t and won’t make any apologies for that,” he continued. “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.”

Mr. Robison began to attract a wider audience with the release of his album “Life of the Party” (1998), produced by Lloyd Maines, and “Step Right Up” (2001), his major-label debut for Columbia. And while he continued to disparage the Nashville music establishment as insular and controlling (“It’s like Russia during communism”), he served as a judge on the first season of “Nashville Star,” a USA Network singing competition.

By then he had married singer and banjo player Emily Erwin of the Chicks, then known as the Dixie Chicks. Their relationship inspired the lyrics to one of the Chicks’ biggest songs, “Cowboy Take Me Away,” and helped spur collaborations between Mr. Robison and band members including lead singer Natalie Maines, the daughter of his producer. Together they sang on songs including a tender 2004 version of Keith Gattis’s “El Cerrito Place,” later covered by Kenny Chesney.

Mr. Robison’s marriage ended in divorce in 2008. In 2015, he married Kristen West.

Long before his retirement and comeback, Mr. Robison was insistent that he wanted to make a life in music even if mainstream success eluded him. He had no interest in promoting singles or getting radio play, he said, and preferred instead to focus on turning people on “to a different kind of music, the way Willie [Nelson], Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett did.”

To quit, he said in 1999, would be like “running out of the back door of the Alamo.”

Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

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