Charlie Robison was a Texan original. Cut from the cloth of Bandera, born in Houston and most at home on the coast. He was wickedly smart, brutally honest, slyly funny and passionate about things that stirred his soul. Charlie was not one of those prodigy types that started a band in his garage when he was 13 and chased it. He came to it later and on his own terms. As he did most things. But, when he picked it up, he was a natural. He often joked that he was the worst songwriter in his family, and while sister Robyn Ludwick and brother Bruce Robison each have skins on the wall, I think they know Charlie’s self-deprication wasn’t all true. He could write a song as good as anyone’s. In or out of the family.
It feels weird to be using past tense when talking about Charlie because he was always so much larger than life. I already had to kind of write this piece five years ago when he retired due to vocal issues. I titled that piece “Charlie Robison Will Remain the Life of the Party” and it rings truer today than it did five years ago. Charlie was the life of the party, the right man for the job and all sorts of other puns related to his songs. His songs will live forever in the canon of master Texas songwriters.
Charlie’s songs were always slightly deceptively clever and deeper than the surface would imply. He had a gift for making the complex be said simply. It’s a gift he shared with fellow passed Texas songwriting legend Billy Joe Shaver. Where others would try to get cute, flowery and wordy with their lyrics, Charlie often just said it. Charlie was a legend in his own time. He had some run with various Austin bands in the mid 90s and dropped an album in 1995, but it was 1998’s LIfe of the Party produced by Lloyd Maines that would cement him. Hearing that album for the first time was a revelation for everyone that encountered it. Charlie Robison had swag, the coolness just emanated from the speakers. The way he sang, the things he sang about, the attitude was oozing from each syllable. Maines backed it with the ace production that would become his hallmark. Charlie was a founding father of modern Texas Music.
His live shows with his prime Enablers lineup were as salty and rabble rousing as anything you’ve ever seen. The Lucky Dog record label era alongside Bruce and Jack Ingram was the first time our scene had a Highwaymen type thing going on. A marriage to Emily Erwin from the Dixie Chicks put him on music fan’s radars worldwide with headlines like “Chicks Star Marries Texas Songwriter”. But, in Texas music circles it was “Charlie Robison Marries Dixie Chick”. His name was always in bold as far as we were concerned. Unleashed Live would soon follow and Charlie was on CMT. The Step Right Up album soon followed. Charlie later admitted it was his bid for country radio, on his terms. It didn’t work. During those years, Charlie’s star continued to rise alongside the Pat Green wave as he shared highways, festivals and stages with acts like Green, Ingram, Cory Morrow, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Kevin Fowler. They were changing the game. Really, they were creating the game.
It was usually in your best interest to be on your toes when around Charlie. You needed to have your head squared. He would put people and things he disagreed with in their place. He could be ornery. He had strong convictions. He lived by a code. Under it all was a sweet heart and wicked sense of humor. The same qualities you find in his music, you could find off stage. He was a hard worker with a true cowboy sensibility. He had clear notions of right and wrong. And he was always up for a good time and a laugh. He had a hearty laugh that could fill an arena. His wild streak would rival anything Mick and Keith ever did. His job took him away from home all the time, but home was his preferred setting. Some troubadours love the thrill of the travel. It gets old fast. Charlie realized that quicker than most. Charlie loved being with his family and kids. The highway beckoned, but he didn’t grind out the 200+ dates per year that many of his contemporaries did. He played plenty to be sure, but he was damn sure going to do it when, where and how he saw fit.
He commanded spaces. Green rooms, airplanes, bus lounges and stages. He was larger than life. Physically and with his aura. He was the cat that other musicians deferred to. Charlie didn’t ask for that power, he just held it. He didn’t have to ask. Onstage that translated to him being able to rock a live show. Everything he did looked effortless. He had a gift for making the hard work look easy. The manner in which he could go from the rowdy noise of songs like “Barlight” and “John O’Reilly” into the vast space and wonder of songs like “Loving County” and “Sunset Boulevard” was uncanny. I’ve still never heard a sold out Gruene Hall grow as quiet as the first time I heard him do “Loving County” there. Not even one beer bottle clinked in the trash can. Charlie Robison created that vibe and had the whole place in a trance. He was a master at it all. Writing, performing, singing, leading the band. He was deceivingly good on guitar when he wanted to be too. Again, he was a natural.
Thankfully, Charlie got to see his legacy’s impact while he was still around due to that 2018 retirement. He was feted at Mile 0 Fest. He was able to read all the online tributes and hear the stories. I got to stand beside him at the Mile 0 tribute. He alternated between crying and laughing as his friends sang his songs and told their best Charlie stories that could be told to an audience. The best stuff stayed in their hearts. I remember him remarking that he couldn’t believe they were making such a big deal about him. In hindsight, perhaps we didn’t make a big enough deal.
Losing Charlie Robison just one week after Jimmy Buffett really brings things into perspective. Unfortunately, I’ve had to write far too many of these kind of pieces over the past few years. Nobody is here forever. But, if you truly chase your heart and find what God put you on this green earth to do, your impact will be felt for generations to come. Charlie Robison’s impact is indelible and large. He wrote amazing songs. He covered songs so well he made them his own (“El Cerrito Place”). He burned down stages. He played the music industry game long enough to call bullshit on most of it and come out stronger. He let his life influence his art (Beautiful Day). He did what he wanted, when he wanted. Others gave lip service to being independent and outside the lines. Charlie Robison just did it. No PR campaign needed. He was just himself. The coolest dude in the room. Follow him or get out of the way because he was going to do it his way.
Charlie Robison could have been a Larry McMurtry character. He reminded me of a cross of Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call. He had the pensive drive of Call and the twinkling wanderlust of McCrae. Even at his most serious, he always had a devil may care uncertainty lingering in his eyes.
Songs like “My Hometown”, “New Years Day” and “Good Times” will be played in bars around the Lone Star state for the rest of time. “Loving County” is in the pantheon of the best songs ever written in this state. That’s one hell of a legacy. As I alluded to in the Charlie Robison Will Remain the Life of the Party article, I’ll always see Charlie as he was on the album cover of Life of the Party. Effortlessly cool. Young. Slightly smirking. Supremely Texan. Charlie Robison was the best. He raised the level of songwriting and art in Texas. Nobody wanted to disappoint Charlie Robison, including himself. He had high standards and expectations of others, but none more so than that which he had for himself.
Charlie Robison’s influence is incalculable. You can find him in every facet of the modern Texas Music industry. He’s in every freshly calloused finger that is trying to put some simple lyrics to a fresh G-C-D melody. He’s in every bar that has a songwriter in the corner mixing originals in with covers of “My Hometown”. He’s at every festival that is selling a good time backed by original, independent music. He’s at every gig where sometimes it’s a little too loud and beer-soaked, but the songs shine through. He’s in every backstage corner telling some dirty joke. He’s the big arm around your shoulders swaying to a waltz. He’s the stern, disappointed fatherly look when you make a mistake. He’s in every creak of the dance floor. Charlie Robison was, and is, Texas. Texas Music and the state itself. Larger than life. Imperfectly perfect. The envy of all others just by being true to thyself. Charlie Robison was the life of the party, and we should all be glad he invited us and gave us the directions.