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Bruce and Kelly and the twins

A Conversation with Bruce Robison (continued)

PM: As a Nashville guy, I'm always so interested in the stories of how songs got cut. So if it's a reasonable question, maybe you'd share stories on your two biggest songs, "Traveling Soldier" and "Angry All the Time."

BR: Yeah, and that first one, I like that story, because--and you know, from being in Nashville--there is a normal way that songs go through channels, and there are people in place to do things. But I really never had any success in that sort of structure. That first song, I put it out [on his own record], and Faith Hill saw the video. But even before that, I was signed to Sony, and we went in to cut a couple more songs to put onto a record I'd already made and they'd licensed from me. And I had three songs, and they liked two of them. And then the third one they didn't like, and it was like, "Ah, that's not--what else you got?" And I so I was playing some other stuff, and my friend Laura Putty was there, and she said, "You ought to play 'Angry All the Time'." And I said, "Well, I recorded that on another record, and I don't think so, it's slow." And she said, "That's a great song." And the producer, Blake, said, "Well, play it for me."

PM: Blake Chancey?

BR: Uh-huh. And I played the song. He says, "That's good. Let's cut that." And so we went in and cut the song. And I guess they ended up liking it, too, because we released it as a single, although nobody played it. And we actually made a video for it. And then Faith saw that video. She told me later on, years later, that she had it on her pile of songs for her to maybe cut, and Tim heard it out of that little pile--

PM: Wow.

BR: --and got in the studio before she did, and I didn't even know that they were looking at the song. And they called me--my publisher called me in the middle of the night and said they cut the song today. And then it was a single.

PM: How exciting it must have been to get that call in the middle of the night.

BR: It was. Yeah, and that was the experience I'm sure that people have that it's like I wonder if it'll ever be that way again because--where it's just so magical, you know, you have no idea--

PM: Yeah, you can't believe it.

BR: --where you don't know what it's going be like, and you have this feeling that your life is going to change, and that people are going to look at you differently. And you know, they do and they don't. But there's that feeling of--you know, it was my big break--and it's so exciting. And then I don't know what it'll be like, ever--maybe if four years go by and I get another cut it'd feel the same way. But right now it feels like, "Oh, we got to get another one." And then if we did, it would just be relief, pretty much. [laughs] It wouldn't be, "Woo-hoo!" It'd be just like, "Oh, thank goodness." So yeah, I loved that.

And then when "Traveling Soldier" went out, that story, to me, is just insane, because I wrote the song right when I started writing songs, just one of the first couple of tunes I wrote.

PM: Really?

BR: Yeah. And it was during the buildup for the first Gulf War, which was '91, or something like that. Maybe it was later than that--but a long time ago. And so I couldn't make sense--you know, I was freaked out by these reports of large amounts of casualties and all this stuff that was going to happen whenever we invaded Iraq for their invasion of Kuwait. So I decided to write a song about one person going off and not coming back, because I couldn't understand however many thousands of people were supposed to get killed. I couldn't understand that at all. So I wrote a song about one guy going off and not coming back.

And the song just--you know, I recorded it, and it never went anywhere. It sat around for a few years. And then I didn't even know they were looking at it, and then when the Chicks did their acoustic record, they picked that song, and they recorded it. And I guess it was the third single. And it was in no way manipulated, it just turned out to be the third single. They weren't saving it. I mean, it was just amazing. And then so the thing goes, and it's the top of the charts whenever the week that we invade Iraq this time, and that Natalie--that the Chicks got into their big brouhaha, and all of that stuff started. And so the song is just--ever since I wrote it and loosed it into the world, it's just funny, where it's gone and how it's got itself--

PM: A miracle of unpredictable timing.

BR: Yeah, so completely. So it makes it easy for me not to try and manipulate things, because I don't, and there's no chance of it. I write songs, and hopefully somebody somewhere will like them, and then there ain't nothing I can control at that point, because I've seen the craziest shit that will ever be. [laughs]

PM: Right, since all of your best results were not, in any way, manipulated by anything typical...

BR: And songs that I wouldn't have known that were going to get cut, and didn't offer people--Steve Earle was the one that was like, "Well, everybody wanted"--he says, "Up-tempo and positive, everybody wants up-tempo and positive." And the only songs I've ever got cut are these horribly depressing sad songs, and then people put six of them on their record. [laughs] Yeah, so it's been interesting. It's an interesting business, and I really love being a part of it.

PM: And over and over again you hear, "That tune? That's a tune I wrote six, seven years ago, and I gave her three songs that were perfect for her, and she said, 'Nah, I don't like any of those.'"

BR: Right.

PM: And cuts something else. I mean, that's how it always goes.

BR: You can't tell, you can't tell. And then you play--I'll play one of those songs for maybe ten years, and even the people in the club, if there's ten people in the club, nobody is listening to it. And then the song becomes a hit. And then whenever people hear it now, they hear it completely differently.

PM: Right. Now it's like, "I always loved that song."

BR: Yeah, yeah.

PM: "Oh, yeah, I played it for you about twelve times."

BR: Which is all good.

PM: It's all good. A song has indescribable power. I always loved that Grateful Dead song "Tennessee Jed," and I was so amazed to hear it show up on your record.

BR: I wasn't hip to that song, and they have all those programs, if you're driving in the middle of the night. I think it's syndicated, The Grateful Dead Hour or something like that. So I was just never really hip to those guys. And then I heard that song one night, and I just thought it was cool. As a songwriter, I mean, I love like hooks and melodies and choruses and stuff. And so that song was like--"Wow, that's cool. I never heard that tune before."

PM: It's got a great chorus.

BR: Yeah, doesn't it? So it's a lot of fun. I mean, I played it in the show last night and just had a great time playing it, and the band likes it. So it's a cool thing.

PM: And Hunter and Lauderdale have written a lot of great stuff together.

BR: I know, I know.

PM: Is Jim a friend of yours? He must be.

BR: Yes. We've written some songs together. And I've been friends with Jim for a long, long time.

PM: He's just one of the greatest guys.

BR: Yeah. He could fit in in Austin if he wanted to.

PM: Oh, yeah. He's a really funny son-of-a-gun.

BR: Yeah, he is.

PM: When I seen him at Folk Alliance he was doing one of my favorite Lauderdale routines. I was in a small group of people walking by him, and he's on his cell phone, mugging like he's on the line. And he says, "Oh, oh, well, thank you very much. And please, send my regards to Mr. Cheney." [laughs]

BR: Right. Yeah, that bit never gets old.

PM: No, he'll just do those bits over and over and over. "How is everybody in the balcony tonight?" He's just shameless.

BR: Uh-huh.   continue

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