It feels like the whole state of Texas got a bit smaller in the early hours of Sept. 10, the stars over rural Bandera, the neon bar lights and the lights of Loving County all a bit dimmer for a moment of remembrance.
Charlie Robison, the beloved independent troubadour who’d blazed trails and lit up stages throughout his home state and beyond, passed away from natural but unexpected causes just a few days past his 59th birthday. The tragic news was reported by his sister (and fellow gifted songwriter) Robyn Ludwick on social media, and soon much of the Texas music world and beyond was lamenting alongside her, all touched in their own way by his outsized persona and talents, his brief-but-potent recorded legacy and memories of a commanding live-show presence and voice that even Robison himself had once chalked up as gone before being gifted an unexpected return to the stage that would prove to be an unintentional farewell tour.
Going forward, let’s just refer to him as Charlie, because his career is so intertwined with his similarly gifted younger brother, Bruce Robison, that the last-name reference could get confusing. Yes, three great singer-songwriters from one family — Charlie and Bruce and Robyn. And that’s just sticking to blood relatives.
Born in Houston and raised in Bandera, Charlie was once a college football prospect — not hard to imagine for a strapping kid well north of 6-feet tall — before knee injuries required a career redirection. Turns out athletics were only the tip of the talent iceberg. He began honing his chops on guitar and vocals and gigging around Austin’s honky-tonk scene with bands like Two Hoots and a Holler and the Millionaire Playboys, along the way writing enough of his own material to record a solo debut named after his hometown. Bandera only got a bit of traction and has since fallen out of print, but if you can find (or managed to hold onto) a copy you can see the pieces already in place. The sometimes-deadpan but always-warm twang, the clever detail of the writing, the lyrical quirk and nuance that personalized it and invited the listener to ponder, infer and reward themselves with repeat listens — with nods to John Prine winsomeness or Guy Clark stoicism and a healthy dose of towering ranch-hand swagger to deliver it. And he’d get even better.
It was Americana back when nobody was really calling it that yet; Charlie might’ve gotten lumped in with the cadre of under-the-radar honky-tonk true believers in and around Austin, or maybe the budding alt-country scene, but much of his late-’90s career momentum came from getting swept up in the cresting Texas country and/or Red Dirt genre that, while largely buoyed by college-aged rowdies flocking to artists barely older than themselves, pulled more than a few twangy lifers like Charlie into its gravity.
He might’ve never been entirely of a piece with the college cowboy crowd, but he was soon among their favorites; his breakthrough 1998 album, Life of the Party, was easily among the best albums to ever emerge from the scene, and the easy-ramblin’ “My Hometown” among its most beloved anthems. Singing along as Charlie’s killer live band tore through the likes of “Barlight” or “I Don’t Feel That Way Anymore” became its own sort of Texas tradition. More ruminative numbers that flexed Charlie’s songwriting muscle were in the mix too: the rural character study of “Indianola,” the starkly noirish murder balladry of “Loving County” (possibly tied with “My Hometown” as his signature song), the wry ruminations on fame and heartache in “Sunset Boulevard,” all as indelible as anything cropping up from the rich ranks of Texas songwriters in the era.
And a rumination on fame might’ve been a glimpse into the future for Charlie. Not that he’d ever truly strike gold as a household-name musician, but he’d find some unconventional paths to something resembling nationwide recognition. For one, he married Emily Erwin of the Dixie Chicks in 1999 as they scaled to the top of the mainstream-music peak; though they’d divorce in 2008, their marriage lasted through the band’s cultural lightning-rod moments, and Charlie is survived by their three children.
His Texas-to-Nashville transition was never as complete or fruitful as his ex-wife’s but he did get some opportunities to interlope with the country mainstream: his blazing cover of the NRBQ chestnut “I Want You Bad” cracked the Top 40, his videos popped up regularly on GAC and CMT, and along with his brother Bruce and longtime running buddy Jack Ingram, they made up the roster of Lucky Dog Records, a Sony imprint that made a well-intentioned play for integrating rowdy but thoughtful Texas-style country into the larger commercial scene. The Dixie Chicks (just called the Chicks nowadays) connection was good for some well-received Natalie Maines collaborations on his own dryly hilarious “The Wedding Song” and the (also recently and untimely departed) Keith Gattis classic “El Cerrito Place.” Robison also scored a gig as a judge on the much-viewed first season of Nashville Star in 2003. If the series was Nashville’s blatant attempt to co-opt the American Idol craze, Charlie was clearly meant to be their Simon Cowell, an ornery-when-necessary straight shooter to add some complexity to the glitzy sweetness of it all.
Ornery was an adjective that came up fairly often when discussing Charlie, although not necessarily as a negative. He could be blunt and fearless when it came to calling out music he didn’t like, cocky when touting his own, casually profane when badgered with a journalist’s microphone or notebook during the height of his career. But it didn’t take his untimely passing to also hear plenty of stories of his decades of unforced generosity of time, money and spirit. His longstanding friendships across the music business, his down-to-earth toughness and love of the outdoors, his alternately wide-eyed and deadpan sense of humor and the kind of bar-band unpretentiousness that had him blissfully covering classic rock warhorses onstage alongside his own cherished compositions. Whatever got the crowd moving.
No one would accuse him of pandering, but he knew how to show an audience he loved them right back.
His love for his fellow musicians and songwriters was evident on the rest of his output; much like his predecessors Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm and Robert Earl Keen, he was a sublimely gifted lyricist but had a curator’s ear for rounding out his catalog with numbers that might’ve been overlooked otherwise. Sometimes, of course, he didn’t have to look further than his immediate family: his covers of songs by Bruce and Robyn are among his sweetest moments on record. He also spotlighted tunes by the likes of Damon Bramblett, the Hollisters, Waylon Payne and Bobby Bare Jr., but his own muse found him often enough. Past the Life of the Party masterpiece, he kept the gems coming. The comical Tex-Mex stomp of “One in a Million,” the Celtic folk-rock blast of “John O’Reilly,” the charmingly oddball South Texas honky-tonk of “New Year’s Day,” the thinly veiled moving-on anthem of “Beautiful Day,” the stripped-down and evocative likes of “Rain” and “Photograph” … his best were as good as anyone else’s best.
It’s on the sweet side of bittersweet that Charlie had to publicly walk away from touring and recording back in 2018; complications of a surgery had rendered him unable to sing, as he spelled out in an announcement long on gratitude and short on self-pity. His recorded output and schedule had been slowed for years by that point anyway; he married his wife Kristen, had a son in 2020 and spent much of his time working and enjoying himself on his Bandera ranch. If he managed to be ambivalent about it, at least publicly, his retirement gave opportunity for his fans and musical friends to mourn the loss of at least the public side of one of their very favorites.
Praises were sung, his life was celebrated, tributes abounded (including a memorable multi-artist one at the next year’s Mile 0 Festival in Key West). and if Charlie wasn’t able to sing along at least he was able to soak it all up alive and otherwise well.
And in the end – or at least shortly before it – it turned out retirement wasn’t as permanent as he initially thought it to be. In 2022 he announced that he was well enough, vocally and otherwise, to play a few rounds of comeback shows. Keeping the schedule modest, he played a few favored venues, usually seated with stripped-down backing — not taking too many chances with a voice it was reasonable to fear might not return, but nonetheless thrilling some fans who feared that right along with him. Everyone who made it a point to see it for themselves has something to cherish even more in context.
The ones who unwittingly got that chance to say goodbye are joined in grieving with those who were just grateful they were introduced to Charlie Robison in the first place — fans who felt the love, good cheer and commitment of his live show, fans who saw themselves and generations of Texas and endless pieces of his soul in records and lyrics ripe for revisit or discovery … compadres and allies comforted by firsthand memories or secondhand gratitude for all he brought to the music in the time he was given … thousands of folks from the Lone Star State and all over with a toast, a tear or a kind word for an old friend who packed his bags a little heavy this time to head himself back home.
Cover photo from Instagram