Lone Star Country Performers Making Waves

Texas artists Bruce Robison, Charlie Robison, Kelly Willis, Jack Ingram, Monte Warden forging own way.

NASHVILLE — Texas and Nashville traditionally have had an uneasy alliance. Buddy Holly, Bob Wills and Willie Nelson are only three examples of Texans who bounced off Nashville, rebounded in Texas and became superstars.

Now a loose gathering of fiercely individual Texas artists are attracting country audiences — and attracting Nashville labels as well. Bruce Robison, his brother Charlie Robison, Kelly Willis, Monte Warden and Jack Ingram are friends and part of an unofficial like-minded Texas country clan moving beyond the usual Texas club scene.

"In Austin, where I live and where I've been playing for a while, you play the same clubs all the time. And so it's really great to be seeing new faces every night, going out there and trying to make your case," Bruce Robison said. "If you make records that you believe in and then you go through cities, the word-of-mouth just seems to spread."

Each of the five leading Texas country contenders possesses a distinct set of musical attributes.

Jack Ingram was once considered "frat-boy" country, because of his crowds. He has matured into a rough-and-tumble Billy Joe Shaver–type, a bit reminiscent of Steve Earle.

Bruce Robison writes about small towns and everyday people. He's rarely happy-go-lucky, even on the upbeat tunes. But his sad songs (such as "Angry All the Time") can take your breath away.

If anyone in this bunch can write a funnier song than Charlie Robison, they haven't done so yet. Robison, as it happens, is married to the Dixie Chicks' Emily Robison.

Warden picks up where Holly left off. His music is the easiest to dance to, and he's the most romantic of the five.

Willis, who's married to Bruce Robison, has a distinctively

vulnerable-sounding voice that, at full-throttle, can sound heart-breaking.

Next Big Thing

Right now, the odds-on favorite for Next Big Thing status — and not just among these five artists — is Charlie Robison. Two singles, "Barlight" and "My Hometown," nabbed a respectable bit of airplay. After 18 months, his debut album, Life of the Party, finally cracked the Billboard country charts in April, at #71. He has since been upgraded from Sony's fledgling Lucky Dog imprint to Columbia Records. Budgets are bigger and expectations are greater.

But ask Charlie if he is indeed the Next Big Thing, and he shudders. "That terrifies me," he said. "I take all that with a grain of salt. People say that to you all the time. But usually when you're the Next Big Thing, you're also the Last Big Thing. Ninety percent of the time, that's the way it happens. I'd rather be the Always Middle Thing."

Meanwhile, Ingram and Bruce Robison lie in reserve at Sony Music Nashville's Lucky Dog Records. Robison maybe too poetic for the brass ring, but he remains a likely heir to idiosyncratic individualists Lyle Lovett or Guy Clark. Ingram, on the other hand, should be a star already. Early in his career, he sold a ton of homemade CDs at his live shows, but his first major-label album sank when the record company, Rising Tide, closed in 1998. Ingram and his Beat Up Ford Band also appeared in the film "Hope Floats"; but without label support, his songs aren't on the soundtrack, which hit #1 on the Billboard country charts. Frustrated, Ingram returned to Dallas to assess his future. With Charlie Robison's encouragement, he signed to Lucky Dog, which released Hey You in 1999.

"As a musician, it gives you a leg to stand on," Ingram said, about the role Texas has played in his career. "When you hit walls, you know that what you do is accepted down there, in a big way. It gives you a place to jump from. When we're busting ass in Green Bay, Wis., or wherever, it's nice to know that Texas is there. It's my home, and we draw as big of crowds as anybody."

Aiming For National Spotlight

Warden and Willis, longtime friends who have each played the Austin club circuit for more than a decade, have faced similar battles in their attempts for national recognition.

Warden, a seventh-generation Texan, recorded two albums for an Austin-based label, which, like Ingram's, closed in 1998; the following year, A Stranger to Me Now, on Asylum Records, yielded no hits.

Much of A Stranger to Me Now laments his painful divorce. He remarried last year, so the follow-up, he says, "will reflect the more positive side of love — and, Lord willing, my first #1."

Willis' three MCA records from the early 1990s have since sold about 200,000 copies combined. She took five years to make another album, What I Deserve (RealAudio excerpt), which she recorded independently. Rykodisk released it in February 1999, and it has sold more than 91,000 copies in just 15 months.

"Ultimately, we just realized that we needed to hit the road, and get out there and play, and get press in each town that we went to. I was really lucky this time, I got a lot of press. I think because it had a little bit of a comeback story to it," Willis said. And the media exposure paid off. "We got a full house everywhere we played," she added. "It was incredible, and we stayed out on the road all year, too. We covered the country."