Imagine you are Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison on any given Saturday night, and you might be forgiven for thinking life looks pretty good. You’re on your way to headline at one of the Texas Hill Country’s legendary dancehalls—the Broken Spoke, say, or Gruene Hall or Floore’s Country Store—when one of your songs comes on the radio. Maybe it’s Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s hit version of “Angry All the Time,” or George Strait’s cover of “Wrapped” or even the Dixie Chicks’ No. 1 hit, “Travelin’ Soldier.” It’s a pleasant interlude in what Dan Jenkins used to call “Life Its Ownself.”
As one of the most acclaimed tunesmiths to come out of Austin, Bruce has worked in the traditional musical model all his life: Sign with a label; Record an album; release single; tour to support same…and repeat.
But although his songwriting work ethic remains anchored to traditional values—strong storylines, compelling characters, hook-laden melodies—Robison is working hard to refit his business model to reflect new music industry realities.
For one thing, although he has an album’s worth of new songs (From the Top, produced by Rodney Crowell, for his own Premium Records label) ready to go, Robison is committed to recording and releasing a song or two at a time, as opposed to entire albums. By releasing singles directly to radio in chosen markets, and making them available online, he can use exposure to cultivate interest in his personal appearances.
As this is written, Bruce is giving away free “Song of the Month” downloads, via his website (www.brucerobison.com) and his Facebook page. By using radio, the web and old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground live shows, Robison wants to make it easy for fans to find his music without having to rely on the vagaries of traditional promotion outlets.
“My feeling is now, that everybody’s on their own,” he says of the current state of the industry. “There’s no labels, there’s hardly any management. It’s like the Fifties again; we don’t know how it’s all going to shake out. But I’m really excited about the future, and finding new ways to get the music directly to the fans. And I’m having fun doing it.”
In a similar spirit, he’s taken pains to revitalize his live sound. He has recruited Joey Sheffield from the Austin pop-rock band Fastball (their 1998 song, “The Way” was a massive radio hit) and Brian Becken and Bruce Hughes from the acoustic-music ensemble the South Austin Jug Band. In blending strains of acoustic roots music with pop melodicism and his own incisive sense of songcraft, Robison is injecting a new vigor and energy into his live shows.
“I’m the luckiest guy that I know, you know?” Bruce says rhetorically. “I just want to have a great time onstage, and I hope that comes across.”
“The best part of the whole deal is we’re really good friends and we were friends before we ever started collaborating, so that adds a nice foundation to the whole thing.”
At the same time, there are traditional avenues that Robison still pursues avidly. A working songwriter, he still goes to Nashville regularly to write songs and keep his hand in the mainstream country music market. But with a new band and a new blueprint for getting his music into folks’ hands and heads, Robison is not only confronting change, he is embracing it.
Robison has hit the musical trifecta as a songwriter, performer and go-to guy for hits. Though it is as a songwriter that Robison has always defined himself, it’s as a performer that he feels most alive.
“Man, it’s almost like foreplay and the other thing,” he says with a laugh, delineating the difference. “For me, writing a song--you might think that it’s good, and you record it.” But, he adds, there’s nothing like seeing the music take on a life of its own onstage in front of an audience. “I’m the luckiest guy that I know, you know? I just want to have a great time onstage, and I hope that comes across.”
Although he is about as far from a preening egotist as it is possible for an artist to be, Bruce Robison takes a fierce, unvarnished pride in what he has achieved in the field of songcraft.
"I always had very high goals and a very high opinion of myself as a songwriter," he said, adding, "and I don't say that in a conceited way. I just think everybody should feel good about what they do.
"And I really loved calling myself a songwriter, from the time I first started doing it through the first ten years, when I never made a dime.”
The hit versions of Robison compositions by Strait, McGraw and Hill, the Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack and Allison Moorer helped change all that. "I've never not liked it anytime anybody's cut one of my songs. I'll always be amazed by that," he marvels.
Following in the footsteps of Texas icons Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker, Bruce has remained fiercely independent by making a base for himself in Austin. With his own recording studio, record label and fan base that fills a dance floor whenever he plays - the Lone Star State is home. Always will be.