On first impression, Charlie Robison’s new album suggests a reassuring element of business-as-usual for the bad boy of Bandera. Hell, the title alone just about spells it out: High Life, he calls this one, which had to have been a Vegas favorite coming after such previous Robison albums as Life of the Party (1995), Step Right Up (2001), Good Times (2004) and Beautiful Day (2009). Although not all of the man’s songs are necessarily celebratory in nature, he’s always served them up with a carpe diem shot of devil-may-care vim and vigor. And it’s not just the title here that sounds par for his course: In classic, freewheeling Robison fashion, the songs veer wildly all over the Lone Star music map, from rockin’ roadhouse swagger and jaunty Tex-Mex to epic border ballads and gut-wrenching closing-time confessionals.
All of the above makes High Life the epitome of a classic Charlie Robison record, satisfaction guaranteed. But it’s also unlike any other album he’s ever made, marking the first occasion on which the unrepentantly outspoken Texas songwriter has devoted an entire record to songs he loves but didn’t write. Coming off of the emotional roller coaster of Beautiful Day, the optimistically titled but bittersweet song cycle addressing the end of his marriage to fellow artist Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks (and Courtyard Hounds), Charlie figured he was due for a little redemptive release.
“That last record took so much out of me writing it, because I was actually going through the divorce in real time as I was making it, so I really wanted to get far away from that and just do the complete opposite this time around,” says Robison. “Right now, I’m at this point in my life and career where I just want to have fun. My ex-wife and I are best friends, my kids are in a great place, and I’m having the time of my life — so I really just wanted to make a record that captures that feeling and good attitude and adds to that fun.”
Although High Life opens with the aptly titled “Brand New Me,” written by Charlie’s brother Bruce Robison, and also features a pair of songs by his sister, Robyn Ludwick, and one by his friend, Bobby Bare Jr., the album’s get-yer-ya-ya’s-out tone is largely defined by the handful of songs harkening back to Robison’s formative wonder years of the late ’60s and early to mid-70s. “I grew up in Bandera outside of San Antonio, and my grandparents lived in Austin, so Doug Sahm was just like, everywhere,” he recalls fondly of the Texas Tornado, leader the Sir Douglas Quintet, and all-around jack-of-all-Texas musical trades. “My uncle was like a hippie around that time, and I remember cruising around Austin with him listening to Doug Sahm records and it was just so wild, the sounds he was getting. All that Sir Doug stuff just hit me really hard.”
Robison readily calls Sahm (with whom he become friends later in life) one of if not the biggest influence of his career, marveling at the way that the late musical maverick effortlessly jumped from rock ’n’ roll to blues to country to straight-up conjunto, sometimes even drawing on all the different genres at the same time. “That’s always been my template in making my own records,” he says. “Doug was the guy who showed me there were no boundaries — you could be all over the place and just play anything, as long as you do it well.” On High Life, Robison does right by his hero with a rousing spin through one of the most definitive cowboy-hippie-mariachi gems in the Sir Douglas Quintet canon, “Nuevo Laredo,” featuring the classic Sahm line, “the long-hairs were a novelty to the people on the scene.”
“That’s one of my favorite lines in any song in the world,” Robison enthuses. “I was always like, ‘Man, I want to sing that so bad!’ It’s so fricking great, I go crazy just thinking about getting to play that song onstage.”
In fact, that was the impetus behind the entire album, which Robison produced himself with his road band and a handful of special guests (including Joel Guzman, Rich Brotherton, Jay Johnson and George Reiff) at Austin’s Cedar Creek Recording Studio. “The whole idea was to reconnect with why I started playing music in the first place, going all the way back to being in high school with my first band,” explains Robison, who spent his 20s playing in a handful of rock and honky-tonk bands on the Austin-area scene before stepping out as a singer-songwriter with his 1995 debut, the Lloyd Maines-produced Bandera. “I just wanted to make a record where every single song was going to go straight into the live set. I’ve always wanted to play all these songs onstage, but never had a chance to over all these years. And I also just wanted people to realize, number one, that this is where I came from — it was listening to guys like Doug Sahm and The Band that made me want to do this, long before Robert Earl Keen or Lyle Lovett or any of that stuff.”
The Band may not have been from Texas, but their pioneering Americana hybrid of roots, rock, country and soul captured the same “no boundaries” spirit of the era as Sahm at his best — which is why Robison and his band fearlessly tackle two of their songs on High Life: Robbie Robertson’s “Lookout Cleveland” and the Bob Dylan-penned “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” “‘Lookout Cleveland’ has always been one of my favorites, with the way it changes tempos and times and all the different instruments on there, plus the lyrics that just make you go, ‘Wow, where in the hell did they get the idea for this song?’” says Robison. “Bruce and I talked for years about doing an album together, and that was always at the top of our list of songs we were going to do. But that never came to fruition so I just decided to do it myself. And ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ is just such an amazing song, obviously; from the very first lines, you can really see everything taking place as you’re listening to it. And I always loved that country/Phil Spector kind of thing, with like six different kinds of keyboards and all that other dynamic stuff going on.
“We really messed with the arrangement on that one for a long time,” he continues, then laughs. “Probably half of the record is made up of first or second takers, but The Band songs — it’s pretty much impossible to do one takes on that stuff unless you are The Band. But taking their template and then trying to tweak it a little in our own way was such a blast.”
Along with the Sahm and Band tunes, High Life also features a pair of vintage Americana story songs that sound as true to Robison’s voice as some of his own best-loved songs, like Life of the Party’s “My Hometown” and Good Times’ “New Year’s Day” and “El Cerrito Place.” Kinky Friedman’s “Wild Man from Borneo” in particular fits Robison like an old hat — in part because he first cut it on a 2006 Friedman tribute album called Why the Hell Not, but also because it so perfectly captures the cosmic country, “almost Grateful Dead” vibe of Austin in the ’70s that Robison cites as his favorite musical era. Likewise, Ry Cooder’s “The Girls from Texas,” a gem from the California-born guitarist’s 1980 album Borderline, is an epic slice of South Texas conjunto with a wicked twist that Sahm himself would have been proud to call his own.
Balancing the old with the new, Robison rounds out High Times with a handful of more contemporary songs by friends and family. Bobby Bare Jr., who penned Beautiful Day’s “Nothin’ Better to Do,” is represented by “Patty McBride,” another coulda-been-a-Robison-original about leaving a small town in search of fame. Brother Bruce, who’s written a handful of Top 10 country hits (“Angry All the Time,” “Travelling Soldier,” “Desperately”) in addition to finding his own niche on the Texas music scene, contributes the uplifting “Brand New Me,” and kid sister Robyn Ludwick proves she may be the most formidable songwriting Robison yet via “Monte Carlo” and “Out of These Blues.” “Monte Carlo is actually about our mom,” says Charlie. “The first time I heard it, we were doing a Robison Family song-swap thing up at the Steamboat MuiscFest, and Robyn was completely unknown to most of the people up there at the time. But she pulled out this song that I had never heard before, and just completely kicked our asses with it. That was probably about six years ago and I’ve been wanting to record it ever since.”
“Out of These Blues” hits even closer to home: “She wrote that song about me, during the divorce, and I didn’t even listen to it for about a year or two because I knew she could really get to the matter of things,” Robison admits. “But I finally got removed enough from that point of my life to where I could listen to it, and … oh, man! It’s another one of those songs that’s really like a picture, just like the Dylan song. I’ve always been drawn to songs like that.”
Of course, Robison’s written his fair share of quality songs himself over the course of his career, which accounts for why he still enjoys the freedom to record exactly the kind of records he wants to years after ruffling more than a few feathers in status quo Nashville. Robison’s recorded for a handful of labels over the years, including Sony’s Lucky Dog imprint and Warner Bros., but he’s maintained a firm grip on the reins of his musical integrity every step of the way and now happily answers to nobody but himself when it comes to writing and recording exactly the kind of songs and albums he wants to. (He’s self releasing High Times, with distribution through Thirty Tigers.)
“I love keeping ownership of the records, because you actually get really good checks in the mail, whereas for the years I was on major labels, no matter what, you’re never going to see a check for anything,” says Robison. Indeed, despite having had his taste of chart success in the past, the now proudly independent artist couldn’t be any less interested in courting the mainstream country market these days if he tried. “I just don’t care if my songs ever get cut by anyone else, and the way I write, I don’t have to worry about that! And the whole co-writing thing isn’t my cup of tea, either; to me, co-writing is just the most painful thing in the world. I haven’t co-written a song with anybody in probably 15 years — and that was with Bruce!”
But don’t take his reticence to co-write — let alone the fact that he’s just recorded an album full of covers — as any sign that Robison’s run out of things to say. Far from it. “I’ve done a ton of writing lately,” he says. “In fact, I’ve actually got about two records worth of songs done. But first I want to have fun with this record for a couple of years before I go back to all of that stuff. Getting to play these songs live is going to be a nice little rest, because after you’ve written a whole bunch of records, you just want to cleanse the palate a little bit. It’s like a little reload, if you will.”