Texas country-rock singer-songwriter Charlie Robison announced to fans on his official Facebook page Thursday night that he’s “officially retiring from the stage and studio” after complications from a surgery procedure earlier this year left him permanently unable to sing.
Brothers Charlie and Bruce Robison rose from the Hill Country town of Bandera in the early 1990s to become two of Central Texas’ most successful Americana artists. Charlie, 54, released nine albums between 1996 and 2013. He was married to Emily Strayer (nee Erwin) of the Dixie Chicks from 1999 to 2008; they have three children.
In 2009, former American-Statesman staffer Michael Corcoran wrote the following profile of Charlie:
Charlie Robison hates doing interviews and they sometimes hate him right back, like the time in the ’90s he got wasted and ending up trashing just about every country music act besides his beloved George Strait – which is what you want to do when you’re an outsider from Texas on a Nashville label.That late-night jawing session set to print probably didn’t hurt Robison’s musical career as much as when he wed the sexiest member of country music’s biggest act in 1999. You can’t be a country music “outlaw” when you’re holding your wife’s purse on the red carpet while she’s being interviewed by a guy from ‘N Sync. Robison had become Stedman in a Stetson, a professional “plus one.”
But even as Mr. Dixie Chick, Robison maintained a pretty good career, with four albums each selling in the 100,000-300,000 range. He was a judge on the first season of “Nashville Star” and has had a couple songs in movies and TV shows. But when your wife’s won 18 Grammys and you’re still playing Gruene Hall, it’s hard to not become the Kris Kristofferson character in “A Star Is Born.”
Then, when the Dixie Chicks luxury liner hit an iceberg after anti-Bush comments Natalie Maines made in 2003, Robison became first mate on the Titanic of twang. What happened to the guy who just wanted to write a song as good as Willie Nelson’s “The Party’s Over”?
The old Robison was back in peak rascal form on a recent Thursday at the historic Liberty Bar in downtown San Antonio. The 6-foot-4-inch, 245-pound Troy Aikman look-alike drove up in a gold Yukon with black rims, wearing a straw cowboy hat and big, gaudy $4 sunglasses. Robison ordered a Jack Daniels with a beer back before his rear hit the seat. “Welcome to media day!” he toasted. The shots of Jack Daniels stacked up like planes over DFW as Robison talked about a new album that can’t get here soon enough.
Robison started writing the ironically titled “Beautiful Day” the day after he filed for divorce from Emily Robison in January 2008 on grounds of “discord or conflict of personalities.” The couple has three children.
“When our parents got divorced, they didn’t tell me and Bruce (his songwriter brother) why it happened,” says Charlie Robison, who was 8 at the time. “But we had ‘Phases and Stages’ (the Willie Nelson divorce album where the husband told his side, then the wife told hers) to help make some sense of it. My record is like side one of ‘Phases and Stages.’ “
The woman’s point of view in this split could be told by the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Streets,” which ends the album. It’s a song about pursuing a calling at all costs, even if it means someone is always waiting at home. (Emily Robison currently is not doing interviews and could not be reached for comment.)
“I knew that when I was marrying Emily, I was also, in a sense, marrying (Dixie Chicks) Martie (Maguire) and Natalie (Maines),” Robison says. “Those three girls were already tighter than any three people I’ve ever met. But when the Bush thing happened, they really stuck together.”
As the trio fought hard to hold on to what they had built up, Charlie Robison said he felt left out. He also lost sponsors, he said, because of his affiliation with the Chicks.
“It was intense and it was every day,” Robison says of the media glare. The couple had seen a marriage counselor who noted that in the Dixie Chicks’ documentary “Shut Up and Sing,” Charlie Robison was off to the side while Maines and Maguire were bedside when Emily Robison was about to give birth to twins in 2005. “He was wondering what that meant and I said, ‘They were filming a documentary!’ They were making a movie that I didn’t feel a part of.”
Although they didn’t officially divorce until Aug. 6, 2008, Charlie Robison says he saw it coming in March 2005 when Emily moved to Los Angeles to write songs with her bandmates and make an album with Rick Rubin. Charlie stayed in Texas to run the ranch the couple owns near Kerrville.
“It’s funny,” he says. “I can’t stand L.A., but some of my most successful songs, like ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘El Cerrito Place’ are set there.”
The new album opens with another good song that takes place in his least favorite city. Over a hard strum, Robison sings, “Well she’s hangin’ out in Venice with her Siamese cat/ She’s tellin’ everybody she’s a Democrat/ She sold her Palomino when the tire went flat/ On the 405.” Earlier in the interview, Robison says he wasn’t going to talk about specifics of the new songs, except to say they have thinly veiled references to his ex. But when asked what “her Palomino” was about, Robison pointed his thumb toward his chest.
“I gave Emily a CD a few days ago and she said she really liked it,” says Charlie, whose two-story house with the circular drive in the upscale, yet funky Olmos Park neighborhood is just a 10-minute drive to his ex-wife’s house. “There are probably a few things on there she’s not wild about, but she’s always been very supportive of my music.”
With the wound still fresh, Robison delves deep into what went wrong on songs such as the title track, “Yellow Blues” and a cover of “Nothin’ Better To Do” by Bobby Bare Jr.
Robison says what made “Beautiful Day” especially therapeutic was that he was surrounded by old friends. Warren Hood, who toured with Robison one summer while still a student at Austin High, plays fiddle on the record. Rich Brotherton and Charlie Sexton, whom Robison has known since moving to Austin in the late ’80s, lend rich guitar textures, while another old runnin’ buddy, Bukka Allen, handles keyboards. “Making this record felt like a homecoming,” says Robison, who produced “Beautiful Day” at his brother’s Premium Sound Studios.
There’s a sense of bitterness to the album, but there’s an air of starting over in better shape than going in. “There ain’t no blues where I point my shoes/ Well buddy have you heard the news/ I’m fine, I’m fine” he sings on “She’s So Fine.”
“Emily is the mother of my children and I love her, but over time we just discovered that we didn’t have as much in common as we thought we did,” Robison says, showing that this celebrity divorce is no different than most others.
Robison says the divorce was so amicable that the couple used the same attorney to draw up the papers. “We had always set it up as us having separate accounts,” he says. “She got her money and I got mine.” The couple owns the ranch jointly, he says, with the intent of passing it on to the children. (Robison has the names of his three children tattooed on one arm and the logo of the U.S. Army division he entertained in Iraq in 2007 on his other arm.)
Although Robison is reluctant to leave San Antonio, “the only city I’ll ever live in,” the new record means a new tour. And a reintroduction to a public that has mainly known him this past decade as a husband.
“About a year ago, someone introduced me as a ‘Texas songwriting legend’ and it kinda took me wrong,” says Robison. “I wanted to say, ‘No! I’m the bad boy of country music!” Then he bugs out his eyes and roars. “Look, I’m still crazy!”
The legend part especially confused him. “First, it’s not even close to being true,” he says. “And second, ‘legend’ means you’re done and I feel, at the age of 44, that I’ve finally figured out how to make a record.”