Charlie Robison Invites You to Step Right Up

Texas troubador's "reality-based" music gets down to basics.

Charlie Robison ought to be a happy guy.

Critical kudos have established the Texas singer-songwriter as one of the coolest troubadors around. He's partied with famous Hollywood types like director Quentin Tarantino. He recently married Emily Erwin of Dixie Chicks fame. He performs at SXSW on Thursday, March 15, before beginning a tour.

So how is it he's recorded one of the most cynical records to hit the scene in years? Indeed, Step Right Up, Robison's second Nashville release for Lucky Dog Records, due April 10, is filled with grim tales of betrayal, disillusionment, and dead-end roads. Even the album's title is Robison's wink to snake oil salesmen and other tricksters.

"Where I grew up, you're kind of able to live amongst things and make fun of them at the same time," Robison said by way of explanation. "As they say, comedy is tragedy, plus time."

Perhaps, but Robison's latest will still raise eyebrows. For one thing, there's "The Wedding Song" (RealAudio excerpt), a duet with Dixie Chick Natalie Maines in which we meet a couple marrying out of sheer lack of inspiration for anything better to do with themselves. "But we will get by/ For the rest

of our lives," the song's chorus goes, quiet resignation dripping through every note.

Robison countered that his is reality-based music. "All of these things in my songs happen a lot more than a happy ending does," he said. "Ask anybody: there's a lot more hardship and a lot more cousins you don't talk about than the cousins you do talk about! Everybody has skeletons, and there's got to be somebody that writes about them. That's me."

In fact, many of the characters that populate Robison's songs are real people. The police officer-turned-bank robber of "Desperate Times" (RealAudio excerpt), who was handed over to the Feds by his own wife, is a friend from high school. "He's still behind bars," Robison said.

But most of all, Robison says, the album reflects different aspects of himself. That's especially evident in Step Right Up's musical mix, a straight-out-of-Texas blend of rock, country and Tejano. The

Houston-born, ranch-raised Robison grew up on this concoction, as did brother Bruce Robison, an acclaimed singer/songwriter in his own right. With three albums under his belt already, Charlie Robison has fast become a critics' darling, thanks to his ironic lyrics and "real life in America" songs.

Robison says the characters of his songs "completely crack me up. I'm obsessed with people who are characters, whether good, bad or whatever. I've never been interested in just watching anything, it has to be thought-provoking. Hopefully that's what I've done [with my music.]"

For an artist as singular — and cynical — as Robison, the fact that Step Right Up features both the vocals of Maines and the banjo picking of wife Emily is interesting. One would think he'd be inclined to stay as far from country's reigning super group as possible.

"There's a lot of ways I do distance myself," he concedes. "There's a lot of things that I do shy away from. But as far as the real thing — the music — goes, I'm never going to compromise that end of it. I knew Natalie would do the best job singing, whether she was in my wife's band or not; if there was someone else I thought would have done a better job, I would have gone there. Music is a non-compromising thing."

That Robison receives a bit of limelight due to his proximity to the multi-platinum Chicks is inevitable. But he's already carved out his own musical identity, and he's happy to report that the Chicks' super-success hasn't caused things to change for him. "We don't live in Nashville or anyplace real close to the limelight — on purpose," he said. "We're in San Antonio, Texas, which is a great place to live

because it keeps you grounded. You don't really feel the constraints of fame or things changing that much. You're surprised by it when you go to an awards show and it all hits you."