Every now and then, Bruce Robison thinks about what might have been. The Texan may not exactly be a household name, but he's not too far removed from several people and songs that are. His brother, Charlie, a country singer himself, was once married to Emily Erwin of the Dixie Chicks, who covered one of Robison's songs. Tim McGraw and George Strait have covered him too, and all three made hits of the songs he'd written. But that success never came Robison's way.
"There was a time in the last few years when I looked back on it and it was a really interesting thing to admit to myself. Like, 'Man, I never really went for that kind of brass ring,'" says Robison, now 50, who released Bruce Robison & the Back Porch Band, his first solo LP in eight years, on April 28th. "I could see these people that were real close to me, and see how much work that took and what they had to do to make that jump. And I never did that."
Robison, who grew up in the town of Bandera in central Texas, never made a go of it in Nashville, opting instead to start a family with his wife and fellow country singer, Kelly Willis, back home in the Lone Star State. By the time the first of his songs became a hit in someone else's hands – "Angry All the Time," which he cut in 1998 and went to Number One three years later with McGraw and Faith Hill – Robison had had his first of four children in the span of five years.
"It was a fantastic, wind-beneath-my-wings thing when it happened originally, and it changed my life. Now I really have to tell people I wrote those things. It's been a while. . . a lot of people won't know and think I'm just covering it," says Robison, who also saw his song "Travelin' Soldier" go to Number One with the Dixie Chicks in 2003.
But even if Robison doesn't dwell on missed opportunities, there can be a downside to the success of those songs: "I'm known for these ridiculously, horribly sad songs," he says, laughing. "I'm so glad they were hits, but at the same time I don't want to play 'Travelin' Soldier' and 'Angry All the Time' all night long."
Avoiding that sad-song rut was a big motivation for Robison in recording The Back Porch Band at his all-analog studio in Lockhart, Texas, near where he lives in Austin. In so doing, he reached back, in part, to his eclectic hometown roots. "Music is a really big thing in Bandera. It's a tourist town, and it's all country music, but it's like dance halls and beer halls," he says. "I did want to get more of that celebration feel."
The album's nine acoustic songs have a decidedly relaxed, informal vibe, studio banter and all. Mixed in amongst a handful of originals are several covers, ranging from opener "Rock 'N' Roll Honky Tonk Ramblin' Man" to the Who's "Squeezebox," complete with pedal steel and Cajun fiddle. (A cover of "Still Doin' Time" was included after Clint Black suggested it on Twitter.) Having most recently recorded a pair of albums with Willis, who appears on a couple of The Back Porch Band's tracks, Robison wanted to focus on the group dynamic.
"The two Kelly records were the first time I'd really been part of a band," says Robison, who assembled a 12-piece ensemble for these sessions and whittled the final track list down from about 30 songs. "The thing I wanted was to try to get the players. All the records I love, the music I love, you can hear the players and they're different on them. You hear a record now on the radio and that could be anybody on the sideman thing. You can't tell who anybody is."
In the course of the past year, Robison has taken that principle even further with his web series The Next Waltz. Recorded in his studio with the help of The Back Porch Band players, the series brings musicians in for interviews and to play and even write songs for one-off, on-the-spot recordings. Lee Ann Womack, Sam Outlaw, Turnpike Troubadours, and Jerry Jeff Walker have all been guests.
"That can be a really creative place, like it was back in the Fifties and Sixties where people knew they really had to create a single that would turn peoples' heads," says Robison. For him, those unique characteristics aren't just a matter of the individual players; they fit in with a sense of place. "Stax and Motown and Muscle Shoals, that music came from regional places – like Austin. It wasn't all slick; you wanted to get the sound of regional players, regional artists on there."
Robison may have never gotten famous himself, but with the music business almost unrecognizable from the days when he wrote "Angry All the Time," he sees projects like The Next Waltz as the way forward.
"If the Grand Ole Opry or Austin City Limits happened now, they'd be on the web, they wouldn't be on AM radio or PBS," Robison says. "In the old days, Austin City Limits used to connect country music with the whole world. There's lots of different kinds of music [on there now], but Austin is the vibe that connects it all together."