Bruce Robison performs at the Broken Spoke

BruceRobison2013Success came slowly for singer and songwriter Bruce Robison. He spent more than ten   years performing in Austin’s bars on weeknights while working day gigs in restaurant kitchens, before getting his first break knocking on doors in Nashville’s music scene.

Today Robison’s songwriter’s list of number one country and western hits provides him and his wife, Kelly Willis with enough royalty checks, that they may not have to worry about how to pay for their four kids’ college educations.

Still, he continues to play at South Austin’s Broken Spoke, whenever he can because he finds joy in performing on its dance hall stage. He performed there Oct. 5 without the Cactus Cowboys, who were on tour in New York with his wife, Kelly.

Robison feels nostalgic about the Broken Spoke, perhaps one of the last of its kind in town. The 50-year-old historic honky tonk now dwarfed by high-rise apartments and commercial real estate still offers a saw-dust covered concrete dance floor with a live country band five nights a week.

“This whole dance hall thing is kind of a dying deal. There aren’t a lot of these dance halls,” Robison said. “We do some of my songs and some dance songs. It’s immediate. You’re playing for people to dance. It’s a whole ‘nother thing and part of my culture and what I grew up in. People in rural areas worked really hard and went out on the weekends and dancing. That’s what they did to have fun.”

Playing at the Broken Spoke reminds Robison how far he has come since leaving his roots behind 20 years ago in Bandera.

“I grew up playing in places like this – where you play dance music, so I still enjoy doing it. This is the only place I still play where they dance. It’s a very different show than any of the other shows that I perform. We play my songs, but we also play dance songs. We play a long night. This is the way that country music used to be,” Robison said.

“About 30, 40, 50 years ago country music was in the dance halls, you know. Big stars played the dance halls. The big stars used to play here – stars like Ernest Tubb. I’ve always liked playing here. People like coming here to dance; it never changes. It looks exactly the same today as it did 20 years ago.”

Robison’s wife, country and western singer Kelly Willis was on the road performing in New York City with their regular band, the Cactus Cowboys.

Marty Muse, the steel player who plays with Robert Earl King who happened to be in town, performed with Robison Nov. 1 at the Broken Spoke. Muse has played with Robison over the years, going back 20 years. The two have been friends forever, he said.

The one night only pickup band members who performed with Robison included: lead guitar player Brian Rung, bassist Will Dupuy, keyboardist Chip Dolan, and Bandera drummer Mike Brossard.

“I usually let (Kelly Willis) her take the guys that are real familiar with her and it’s easier for her to work,” Robison said. “This one’s a pickup band, but all of these guys I’ve played with before.”

Robison hails from Bandera and grew up beneath the glow of neon beer signs and listening to country and western music in dance halls.

“The Broken Spoke is just the real Texas thing,” he said. “Maybe they have had places like this in other places, but it’s very much like the places we had in Bandera when I was growing up. They had ‘em in more towns; there’s still a few of ‘em, but not as many.”

Robison said the Broken Spoke owner, 74-year-old James M. White, reminds him of people he grew up with, including his own father, Gerald Robison, who still lives in Bandera.

“Mr. White is like a lot of people I grew up with in Bandera, my hometown. In Austin, there’s all kinds of hipsters. It’s becoming a real metropolitan town and place. So sometimes, we feel like dinosaurs. I don’t know how Mr. White feels about it, but he could have been a guy from Bandera, Texas. We pride ourselves on a certain kind of simplicity and we are from country and we’re definitely proud of that. I certainly have a lot of respect for him and he shows it to me and has over the years. He’s just a real solid person.”

Robison said in his younger days, even before he ever performed as a musician at the Broken Spoke, he and his friends frequented the dance hall.

“One time a couple of friends and myself came into the Broken Spoke. One of my friends had a little too much to drink, so Mr. White’s youngest daughter, Ginny, cut him off. He turned to her and said ‘You can’t quit servin’ me drinks, I’ve been coming in here for years.’ She just turned to him and said ‘You’ll be back.’ And he was. She knew he would be back,” Robison said. “There’s just no other place like it.”

After high school, Robison first chose athletics as a vocation. He played basketball for West Texas State University in Canyon, from 1984 until 1986 when he dropped out to play with country band, Chaparral, whose members still perform at the Broken Spoke occasionally. Robison moved to Austin in 1989 and began playing in the clubs here, including the Broken Spoke.

“I just did it (played music) for fun. I played bass in a little band in Bandera and then I kept playing and then we moved to Austin, I’m not sure that I knew what I wanted to do but I wanted to be something in music,” Robison said.  “Then I started writing songs.”

By name-dropping alone, his successful songwriting hits appear to overshadow his performing career. Robison has authored three number one country and western hits and countless others. His number one hit songs include: “Angry all the Time,” performed by Faith Hill and Tim McGraw; “Travelin’ Soldier,” by the Dixie Chicks; and “Wrapped,” by George Strait.

Robison said his authentic and poetic voice comes from his heart and experiences, he said.

“I was a big music fan and country music fan and then when I started writing songs I kind of felt like I had a talent for it. I kind of knew where the words went together,” he said.

His song-writing process begins with a good idea that he just “expands upon,” he said.

“I try to get a little piece of a melody or an idea for lyrics and then I just expand on it and make it better,” he said. “It’s kind of a hard thing to explain.”

He said he enjoys sharing his talent with others.

“That’s the fun part – seeing how other people react to it,” he said. “I love it also when people are sittin’ there listening to my songs, but when you’re playing a dance hall, it’s just a different sort of thing. It’s definitely not any type of idolatry. You’re all just kind of there together; the band is there to play and the people are dancing and you’re playing some songs that ya’ll know. It’s just a whole different exchange and it’s no different than it would have been 200 years ago at a dance, say in a barn.”

He said once he started to make a good living selling his music, he kept playing dance halls just the same. He said performing in a dance hall refreshes his spirit in a current music scene that sometimes stifles him with what he calls “retail politics.”

“I don’t do this a whole lot, but I still enjoy doing it. I still love playing. I love it more than I ever did,” Robison said. “Because I kind of pulled back for a while with all the kids and family life. So now, playing music is just kind of a simple, pleasant thing – a little break between chasin’ kids. It’s just music for its own sake and I don’t worry about any of the problems.”

Robison sat down to eat his favorite thing on the Broken Spoke menu, the chicken fried steak. Three of his four children ate dinner seated beside him in the restaurant dining room, including Dodie, 12; Abigail, 10; and Joe, 7. Ben, 10, was visiting a neighborhood friend that night.

He said he tries to make room in his family’s schedule to write songs every day, but he can’t always. He said he has a studio outside town where he goes every day to write and to practice his music.
“I wish I wrote more,” he said. “I go there during the day to write songs and then I leave and go to pick them the kids from school. On the weekends I play,” he said. “It’s fun playing. I really do enjoy it.”

A couple of female friends help take care of the Robison clan of children when both their parents go on the road or play at the same time on the weekends, he said.

“They’re good friends that we’ve both known a long, long time. They help us out. Like tonight and tomorrow night – we’re both playing, so they’ll watch the kids for us,” Robison said.

Robison said he misses his wife when she is on the road.

“I miss singin’ with her whenever I have a gig without her,” Robison said. “It’s a lot better with her.”

After 15 years of marriage supporting two individual careers, Willis and Robison finally fulfilled their long-held dream by collaborating on an album; Cheater’s Game, released last February.  Together they managed to share parenting their children during the weekdays and while hopping on a plane weekends to perform out-of-town concerts.

The also two perform holiday themed concerts once or twice a year together in Austin at the Paramount or Austin City Limit’s Moody Theater. Their marriage works because they focus on their family, he said.

“We’ve been real lucky,” Robison said. They haven’t written songs together; they mostly just sing together. They met in Austin 20 years ago.

“It’s a pretty small town among the country and western music community,” Robison said. “She was makin’ records already and I was a fan of hers before I really knew her. We became and then started going out in 1991 and married five years later.”

Willis was the first artist ever to record any of Robison’s songs, with the hit single “Take it All Out on You.”

He said his wife inspired him to write many of his songs.

“Oh yeah, hell yeah,” Robison said.

Some of the lyrics in his songs have a soft, feminine perspective.

“I really don’t know where that comes from. I’ve always done that. (The song) ‘Angry all the Time’ is from a woman’s perspective. I’ve always done that. I don’t know why,” Robison said. “I don’t know why I wouldn’t do that. It just seems natural for me. Some of the best stories are from a woman’s perspective.”

His creative songwriter’s voice speaks from a woman’s perspective that for his fan based listeners, sounds intuitive. His lyrics do not seem stereotypical; they feel personal, but they have universal appeal.

“I’m still floored by it. I love singin’ it and I love hearin’ it,” Robison said. “

Robison first felt the inspiration for the song “Travelin’ Soldier,” from a young girl’s perspective while working in a restaurant kitchen during the first Gulf War that began in Kuwait, during Operation Desert Shield in 1991.

“I was workin’ in a kitchen. There was a young guy there who was gettin’ called up into the National Guard. He was real young and they were prepared for heavy casualties and nobody knew what it was going to be like,” Robison said.

“I wrote that song to just kind of deal with what I was thinkin’ about in my head. By that time I was still too old to go myself and so I was just trying to make sense of some of the emotions that were going along in my head. It just kind of happened.”

Robison said continued to work his day job a restaurant kitchen for “a good long time” after writing the song, not realizing the treasure he had created by combining his heart-felt words and music.

“Workin’ in a kitchen was a job that I could do and I could still go up to Nashville and knock on doors and try to be songwriter,” Robison said. “I kind of had that flexibility. I was playing music and writing songs for about ten years before I had any sort of success or made any money, but I was really having a great time. Austin is a great place to live and not be successful and try to figure out what you’re doin’ and to figure out what kind of music you want to play and all of those things. Austin is a wonderful place to be unknown.”

In 1996 Robison published “Travelin’ Soldier.” A couple of artists recorded it before the Dixie Chicks did and added the song to their album, Home, in 2002; it became their sixth and final number one hit to top Billboard’s charts.

“It’s an interesting thing how a song can be changed by a woman singing it,” Robison said. “The Chicks definitely did an amazing version of that and I think it’s more emotional hearing them singing it than hearing a man sing it. Songs are really beautiful that way. I’m always proud of that song and amazed at where it’s flown off to in all these years. The Chicks took that song to a way wider audience. It’s the reason it’s so well-known.”

Robison said since he calls himself a musician, he plays all kinds of gigs.

“I play weddings, I play funerals, I play parties — still. I wouldn’t miss it,” he said. “It’s what I do. I’m a musician and I play every kind of a thing and everybody else does too, depending upon how much they get paid.”

People feel connected to country western music and the people who play it, he said. Often it seems difficult to separate himself from the culture of his music.

“Within the business and the world of country music people feel real strongly about it,” he said.

The extended Robison family is a musical one; his brother, Charlie Robison is also a singer and songwriter and their sister, Robyn Ludwick, is also a singer and musician.

Bruce Robison first released his self-titled album in 1996 and Wrapped in 1998, both on Vireo Records; then Long Way Home from Anywhere in 1999 on Lucky Dog Records label; Country Sunshine in 2001 on Boar’s Nest Records; Eleven Stories, in 2006 on Sustain Records; Happy Holidays with Kelli Willis in 2006 on Rykodisc; It Came From San Antonio in 2007 and The New World in 2008, and His Greatest in 2009 and Cheater’s Game with Kelli Willis last February all on Premium Records.

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