It's no surprise to hear Charlie Robison describe his first release for Dualtone as "my favorite record that I've ever made, the one I've been wanting to make for a long, long time." False modesty has never been the style of this native Texan, known for saying what's on his mind and letting the chips fall where they may. Along the way, he's developed a reputation as brash and cocksure, a little ornery, a maverick within a country music industry that prefers artists who are easier to manage, package and promote.
No, the real surprise is the tone of Charlie's voice, the quiet confidence he exudes when he says, "This is a culmination of the different styles I've explored, with more maturity in the writing." Where his breakthrough with 1998's Life of the Party album spotlighted the more raucous and reckless side of Robison, and 2000's "Right Man for the Job" single was pure swagger, Good Times, set for release on September 21, 2004, is the work of a reflective artist, one whose music has more depth and range than ever. It's the music of the family man he's become, not the party boy he's been.
"A lot can change in a few years," explains Robison. "When I made my last studio record [Step Right Up in 2000], I was very much a newlywed, a little over a year being married, and we didn't have our son. Then you have a child and your marriage reaches a more mature state it's still really great, but the honeymoon's over. You're talking about the future and being an adult. While 95 percent of me is still the same old guy, I'm a father and a veteran husband now. Whether or not you're consciously trying to put that on the record which I wasn't if you're an introspective person at all it's going to make its way on there."
With a dedication that reads "For Emily, my star, and Gus, my son," the album finds its
inspiration in the life Robison has come to love since marrying the former Emily Erwin of the Dixie Chicks and fathering Charles Augustus Robison, who'll turn 2 years old this fall ("Gus" after a favorite literary character from Larry McMurtry's classic Texas epic, Lonesome Dove). When they're not in the midst of balancing dual musical careers, Charlie and Emily Robison are more concerned with baling hay, raising cattle and training quarter horses on their spread outside Bandera, where Robison's family has ranched for eight generations since the 1840s.
"When you get down here, it's not like you try to forget about music. You have to," says Charlie. "It's a full-time job, 12 hours a day, and it completely clears my creative palette."
In heartfelt balladry such as "Photograph" and the bittersweet "Always," Robison shows just how much he's grown as both a writer and a singer, plumbing depths of emotions that go well beyond the roadhouse dance floor. Both the beyond-the-grave "Magnolia" (which could be Robison's "Long Black Veil") and the evocatively detailed "New Year's Day" reflect his command as a narrative songwriter. Yet just in case someone thinks he's taking his craft a little too seriously, he shows his playful side on "Love Means Never Having to Say You're Hungry" which may or may not be about home cooking and the title track, "Good Times."
"When things get really heavy, I always have to break the tension," he explains. "This is not rocket science, and I'm not putting myself on any songwriterly pedestal. I've always been a huge fan of John Prine, who would write a record with all this heavy stuff, and then there'd be something like 'Illegal Smile.' Tom Waits is the same way, and I've been strongly influenced by those two guys. You've gotta poke fun at yourself."
While the range of Robison's formative songwriting inspirations extends to Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne, he feels particularly indebted to the Texas school of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. "Too much Texas music today has become what Robert Keen calls 'the grocery list,'" says Robison. "It's all 'We're going to float down the river and drink some Shiner Bock and go to Gruene Hall.' When you listened to a song by Townes or Guy, it was like getting a whole history lesson in what life in Texas is like."
In addition to Robison's ambitious songwriting, the album documents his strength as an
interpreter, with a border-flavored revival of "Flatland Boogie" by Texas legend Terry Allen and the bluesy benediction of "The Bottom" by newcomer Waylon Payne. The latter features what could well be Robison's strongest vocal performance to date, while two songs from Keith Gattis "El Cerrito Place" and "Big City Blues" show his affinity for material on the darker side.
"With songs like that, you're not writing for hits; you're just writing about how you feel and out of that comes the beauty of it," he says. "It's like when I wrote 'Sunset Boulevard' and 'My Hometown' and things like that, when I was at a bad time of my life. It's harder to write those songs when you're married, have a kid and everything's good."
Joining Robison on "El Cerrito Place," as she did on "The Wedding Song" from Step Right Up, is the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines. "I love singing with Natalie, and she just took that one over," says Charlie. "We'd already finished the cut, but telling Natalie 'no' is an impossibility. She came into the studio, heard that song, called her dad and said she just had to sing on it."
Natalie's dad happens to be Charlie's co-producer, Lloyd Maines, one of the most respected musicians in Texas. It was a reunion for the two, who'd last worked together six years earlier on Life of the Party.
"We're all very much family," says Charlie. "It was like a homecoming, and it was a blast. We were not in any way ready for the record to be over when we'd finished it."
Yet once they were finished, Charlie knew he'd made the best music of his career.