Bruce Robison has been making music professionally for decades. He still discusses his craft with so much enthusiasm he sounds almost like a kid raving about superheroes. That infectious energy is evident in every note of his new album, Bruce Robison & the Back Porch Band, as well as his new project, The Next Waltz, a blossoming community of artists, fans and friends gathering both virtually and at his recording studio in Lockhart, just outside of Austin.
In both cases, the point is to celebrate country music’s rich raditions while giving creativity free rein to go where it might, as long as it’s somewhere worth traveling. It’s also about celebrating Robison’s “love of the craft of song.”
“Writing is where it all starts for me,” he explains. “Whether it’s my writing, or songs I want to do with somebody else. I love the mechanics of it; how simple it can be.”
Keeping it simple — and organic — was the guiding principle behind the latest album, a collection of Robison originals, co-writes and covers that capture country’s most beloved stylistic elements: good-time, lighthearted romps (“Rock and Roll Honky Tonk Ramblin’ Man”; “Paid My Dues”) and wistful, sometimes bittersweet ballads (“Long Time Coming”; “Still Doin’ Time”). But even the Who’s “Squeezebox” — which Robison calls “a great country song by some English dudes” — shows up, in a lively version dressed with cajun fiddle by Warren Hood and acoustic guitar and harmonies by Robison’s wife, Kelly Willis.
Hood is one of a hand-picked crew of regulars tapped for Next Waltz recording sessions with Jerry Jeff Walker, Randy Rogers, Jack Ingram, Rodney Crowell, Willis, Hayes Carll, Turnpike Troubadours, Sunny Sweeney, Reckless Kelly and others. They’ve re-imagined favorites, reinvigorated covers and even crafted new works, which Robison shares with audiences on the Next Waltz website and other platforms. Meanwhile, he’s cultivating a house band he hopes might one day be as revered as Stax Records’ Booker T. & the M.G.’s or Muscle Shoals’ Swampers. The Back Porch Band does it old-school, all analog, cutting songs together in one paneled room where “happy accidents and all kinds of things that just feel real,” including sound bleed, are allowed to occur.
“It really brings the players and their own voices, their own styles, into the music,” says Robison. “That’s the kind of vibe I’m trying to get back to.”
Their familiarity breeds an undeniable cohesiveness; a relaxed rapport that comes through not only in the music, but in the casual between-track chatter and laughter that further conveys the convivial atmosphere Robison envisioned for The Next Waltz.
“The music just ends up showing the way,” Robison says. “I always thought that the music coming together in the studio, and just the way a studio works, was the most fascinating part of recording. I want to let people see how cool this process is, and how much it has to do with country music, and how the kind of music that we make is tied to those traditions.”
Next Waltz sessions are documented on video, along with interviews in which Robison, speaking artist-to-artist, often draws out stories journalists don’t. The content is designed to let fans peek behind the curtain to witness the creative process, not only providing unique insights, but tightening their connection to the proverbial unbroken circle of country music.
The Country Cover Challenge, another Next Waltz facet in which fans help an artist select a cover tune to record, led to the final Bruce Robison & the Back Porch Band track, the George Jones hit, “Still Doing Time.”
From the sparse arrangement of Robison’s weary voice over Marty Muse’s steel, Brian Beken’s fiddle and bass, Chip Dolan’s keyboards and Conrad Choucroun’s drums, it builds in intensity; as Dolan adds honky-tonk piano tickles, Robison’s voice climbs higher, till he drills the downand-out drama deep into listeners’ souls.
Robison recruited his pal Jack Ingram for “Paid My Dues,” by Jason Eady and Micky Braun (of Micky & the Motorcars). They turn it into a hilarious honky-tonker in the vein of Jerry Jeff Walker, one of Robison’s (super) heroes.
“When we got Jack in there, it really was just a party,” But it’s balanced by more thoughtful tunes such as the Braun-Robison co-write “Long Time Coming,” a gentle ballad filled with the kind of poetic imagery he attributes to another major influence, Guy Clark.
That influence actually extends far beyond songwriting; Robison’s ultimate dream for The Next Waltz is to follow in the late Guy and Susanna Clark’s footsteps by providing a safe, welcoming place for artists, a haven where musicians can socialize, inspire one another artistically and find a creative, emotional and spiritual nourishment.
Whether they’re trading tales at a barbecue or putting them on tape in the studio, it’s all about true interaction. Musicians record live together, not shunted off into iso booths, and there’s not a computer screen in sight — in fact, there are no screens at all, except on the video cameras that capture the action. There’s also little attempt to clean up imperfections; even the squeak of rewinding tape heard before the “Long Shore” count-in is part of the charm.
“The song that I cut with Jack Ingram, there’s not one overdub on it,” Robison marvels. “That sounds like a simple thing, but I’ve never done that in my entire career, where we don’t even go in and fix anything.”
“It’s all about performing the song and seeing where it takes us,” says Robison, “and having great players in a real collaborative atmosphere.”
Those players also include bassists Andrew Pressman, Dom Fisher and George Reiff; acoustic and slide guitarist Geoff Queen; fiddler/vocalist Kimber Ludicker; and keyboardist Trevor Nealon. Robison also plays acoustic guitar, as does Willis on two tracks, and Hood adds mandolin to “Sweet Dreams.”
That particular track is populated with characters Robison actually grew up with in Bandera, Texas, “this weirdo little place that had such an effect on me.”
It’s where Robison, his brother, Charlie, and their sister, Robin Ludwick, fell in love with Willie, Waylon, Hank and other country luminaries, and started writing their own tunes. Eventually, Bruce’s songs turned into hits for George Strait (“Desperately”), Tim McGraw (“Angry All the Time”) and the Dixie Chicks (“Travelin’ Soldier”). He also has recorded on his own and collaborated with Charlie and others as a songwriter, singer, guitarist, harmonica player and producer/engineer. After doing his last two albums with Willis — as well as recording their annual Christmas performance — they’re back to creating separately. But Robison found the perfect love song to record for this album (he says he’s incapable of writing one of his own): Damon Bramblett’s “The Years,” a sweet, slow waltz.
Robison wrote “Long Shore,” a soft, lovely lullaby he sings with Ludiker, after finally catching the film, O Brother, Where Art Thou. The album reflects other influences as well; Christie Hayes’ “Lake of Fire” reflects his love of the ‘70s West Coast sound embodied by Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt.
“I’m always collecting songs,” he says. “That’s what The Next Waltz is about, too; I’m just a fan of songs, and I love the way they come alive in the hands of the right artist.”
One visit to The Next Waltz will provide you with Jerry Jeff Walker revelations about writing “Mr. Bojangles,” an exclusive recording of Randy Rogers singing Merle Haggard’s “Misery and Gin,” the Turnpike Troubadours performing “Come As You Are,” or Rodney Crowell telling Robison and Willis about how he came to own one of John Lennon’s suits.