If you wanted to pin the title of “First Family of Texas Country” on a worthy house, the Robison clan might be a pretty good pick. Brothers Bruce and Charlie Robison are as seasoned of players and songwriters as you will find anywhere in Texas country, and their sister Robyn Ludwick is also an accomplished songwriter and performer. Bruce Robison has penned multiple #1 songs, is married to singer/songwriter Kelly Willis, and the duo recently released an album together called Cheater’s Game that was nominated for the Americana Music Association’s “Album of the Year.” Charlie Robison was once married to Emily Robison—a founding member of the Dixie Chicks and Courtyard Hounds. The couple had 3 children before divorcing in 2008, but Emily continues to use the Robison name and the two remain best friends. Altogether, that’s not a bad little list of music kudos for team Robison.
Older brother Charlie Robison may have never had the big #1 hits that younger brother Bruce did, but they tabulate those types of things far away in Nashville and New York City, and by the time that news trickles down to Texas it seems so trivial to the laid back, easy-feeling mood of the Lone Star State. Being just a year shy of 50, Charlie isn’t looking to make a big splash, set records, or sniff the top of the charts, he’s simply releasing music that he wants to listen to and play, and for the rest of us that get the fortune of peering into his little party, it’s quite entertaining to follow along.
Don’t be spooked too much by the Haight-Ashbury circa 1967 album cover on this record. There’s no acid trips or space jams inside, though in its own way the cover conveys the laid back mood that the music of High Life embodies, and the harkening back to the cowboy hippie vibe of Austin in the mid 70’s that this album evokes. What you do get with High Life is some damn fine Texas country, and interestingly, 9 songs that Charlie Robison didn’t write. Normally it is Charlie doing the writing for himself and others, but Charlie’s decision to leave the pressure behind of penning new material is what allows the party-like, laid-back Saturday night feel of this album to flourish.
Charlie didn’t have to reach very far for the material for High Life. With songs by brother Bruce and sister Robyn, and songs from Texas songwriters like Doug Sahm and Kinky Friedman, High Life fits very nicely within the vibe of what Robison music is all about. Two songs from The Band—“Look Out Cleveland” and the Dylan-penned “When I Paint My Masterpiece”—even seem to slide right into the song selection fairly seamlessly.
High Life is sitting back nice and easy on a bench at Gruene Hall, with the warm Texas air tickling the senses, and a sense that all is right in the world. This album does an amazing job setting the mood of a time and place that you want to be in. Opening track “Brand New Me” written by brother Bruce sets the table for this post-breakup/get-back-to-life record. Doug Sahm’s “Nuevo Laredo” and Ry Cooder’s “The Girls from Texas” help set the party atmosphere by bringing the Mexican border and the album’s sense of place that much closer. Bobby Bare Jr’s “Patty McBride” keeps the party going, and is probably the most solidly rock track on an album that could be offered up as a ideal example of how Texas country can mix in rock influences while still respecting its country roots.
But for my money, the two can’t miss songs of High Life are “Out Of These Blues” and “Monte Carlo,” both written by sister Robyn Ludwick. Can’t say enough about these tracks, the excellence in songwriting they achieve, and Charlie’s ability to interpret their stories perfectly through song. They’re both very similar, and different all the same in the way they convey a feeling of forlornness, but still are imbibed with such a warm sense of memory that a sad story leaves you filled with a happy feeling. The way the chorus of “Monte Carlo” strings you out for so long, hanging in the bubbly moments only the best music can attain, you wish this song could go on forever, and it’s so good it probably could.
Nine songs is all you get with High Life and that’s good and plenty. Charlie Robison does his worst, and leaves you immersed in good vibes before the moments have a chance to stale.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up — 4 1/2 of 5 stars
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