[We started talking immediately, and I didn't get the very first part on tape: it would've felt jarring to stop the conversation until I had my recorder ready, breaking the rhythm that was so genuine and new. As the tape starts, we're discussing the fact that although he is Texan and has written Country hits, he is not what you'd call just Country, once you hear his records.]
Bruce Robison: Right, I wouldn't identify myself and don't see myself as a country act. Country, folk, all those are barriers I'd like to cross. I know I never saw myself as a folk act, per se, either, whatever that means...
Puremusic: But on the other hand, knowing some stone country guys as we both do--
PM: --there are still, I think, some undeniably folk elements to some of your songs.
BR: Most definitely, and the guys that I was influenced by were also influenced by folk artists.
PM: Yeah, like Jerry Jeff Walker, for instance--
BR: Yeah, or Willie. And so even though I didn't count it as one of my influences, it was so influential on the stuff that I was listening to in the '70s, so it's definitely there. These days, any pigeonhole you get put into is going to be rankling to some extent.
PM: Yeah, because they're never right.
BR: Yeah. I just think there's no way that you can be immune to all the influences that you have. But I understand, too, country is just as bad. You got your folk, you got your country, and they have those lines in the sand where they try and establish what they are in a world free of class delineations. Everybody everywhere can listen to every type of music, so they're more defined by what they're not than what they are, so that's a tough place to be in, and I hate it. [laughs]
PM: Yeah, right.
BR: "We don't play so and so, therefore we are..."
BR: I mean, that's what some radio stations are, you know, "What are you?" "Well, we don't play Merle Haggard, that means we're this kind of station," defined by a negative. Anyway...
PM: So we just got off on that because you started talking about Folk Alliance. I think I have questions in one of these back pockets...
So it's just amazing to me, as a Nashville guy, how, as a Texas songwriter and a family guy, you've gotten yourself in the ultimate slot here.
BR: Right now, yeah, it's a great gig. And if I was able to continue to get cuts and to be able to pay the bills in that respect, then that would definitely be the best of all worlds for me. It's not easy to keep those things going.
PM: Yeah, that you can live where you choose, be with the family, and still get the huge cuts. It's unbelievable.
BR: It is unbelievable.
PM: How many guys are pulling that off in the country? A couple, probably.
BR: That's true, not many at all. And I've looked into this some, and it sure seems like it comes in cycles, so that's what I try and take to heart, and be able to make it through. We have such a great thing here, too, where, if you looked at the other people in that category that are able to do that outside of Nashville, we might be alone in the way that we're able to tour and play in Texas and have our careers in that way.
PM: Right, touring-wise, Texas is a whole world.
BR: Yeah, and it can be so supportive, and can be lucrative, and you can play as much in Texas as you want to.
PM: That's unbelievable!
BR: Yeah, it really is.
PM: And people who haven't played here just have no conception of what it is.
BR: Yeah, you're right. Yeah, they move to town and they're like, "Man, I want to bust into that whole Texas thing." And I'm like, "Good luck. It takes a while."
BR: People are really supportive, the clubs are great, it's a great world, but they're not impressed by much.
PM: They've got to warm up to you.
BR: [laughs] Yeah. And so we're so lucky that--
PM: Yeah, if you're something slick, you're not going to get an audience in Texas.
BR: Not necessarily, yeah. It's not going to help you, it's not going to necessarily hurt you, it ain't going to help you. And so we're able to play down here. That can kind of sustain us through the rough periods, too, when you're not getting any cuts. And so that's a really fortunate thing for me and Kelly.
BR: And for my brother, and a lot of my friends--Jack Ingram, and a lot of people that I know, they travel a lot, and they really keep the fires burning. I see what it takes to really make that world turn. And so yeah, I've been incredibly fortunate to this point.
PM: And that's the other unique thing, of course, about your setup, is that it's so extended family, that Kelly Willis is your wife and Charlie Robison is your brother.
BR: Yeah, and Emily is my sister-in-law. It is amazing, even to me.
PM: How could that have happened?
BR: I don't know.
PM: Seems weird to say this, but it's a little bit of country royalty.
BR: Well, that's nice of you to say.
PM: It's something like that.
BR: I think that me and Charlie--there's that Willis Alan Ramsey line about "he looked for a life to fit his style," and I just think that's--
PM: What a great line.
BR:And so I keep thinking--because people keep bringing it up, and now that the family is so much something I'm proud of--that it's an odd little thing that happened with us. People keep asking me, "Well, did you and Charlie grow up in some kind of Von Trapp Sound of Music family or something like that?"
BR: And nothing could be further from the truth.
PM: Right. Well, what is closer to the truth?
BR: Well, lives that fit our style. That once we started, we moved down here, and washed out of school, and that we started writing songs and playing in bands, and there were pretty girls.
BR: And there was beer, and there were late nights--
PM: It seems natural enough.
BR: --and clubs, and interesting people--
BR: --and not difficult labor. [laughs] We grew up doing a lot of that, a lot of manual labor. Our family is blue collar.
PM: What did your dad do?
BR: Well, my dad was the first one--my family were electricians, pretty much, and we did that in summer. But he was a schoolteacher.
PM: He broke the mold.
BR: Yeah, a schoolteacher and a coach.
PM: What did he coach?
BR: Everything, mostly basketball, but everything, yeah.
PM: And is Charlie tall like you? And did you guys play hoops?
BR: I played basketball, and Charlie played football in college.
PM: In college?
BR: Yeah. And so sports was a much bigger thing around us than music ever was. We played in garage bands and stuff. We moved to town here in Austin and just started having a great time. And I just--I can't speak for Charlie, but the minute I started calling myself a songwriter, I just loved it.
PM: Yeah. It's an unbelievable walk of life.
BR: It is. Great people. Your family is in the biz, and you get to--I've heard it said that musicians remember more individual days of their life than some other folks do. And I wouldn't necessarily disagree with that. I mean, you get to see a lot of different places, you get to meet a lot of different people. Even the repetition of it can be fairly interesting and cool.
PM: I think when you're a songwriter, or when you're any kind of a writer, you tend to realize that you are looking at things differently because you might need it later.
BR: Right. Yeah, I believe that. And I believe that there is kind of a hypersensitivity--I know that's over the top, I can either be open to everything around me or shut down to it, depending on what's going on, yeah, whether I'm worrying too much about paying the bills, or anything else like that. I just think there are ideas for songs or stories, or whatever you want, all around you, and that my favorite things that I hear and read are those things where there's a part of you saying, "Well, golly, I could have done that if I'd have thought of it first."
PM: Right. continue