The Texas/Red Dirt world is currently in mourning after the unexpected death of Charlie Robison. The 59-year-old passed away at a hospital in San Antonio due to cardiac arrest on September 10th. Leaving us at such a relatively young age, and with the way Charlie Robison songs soundtracked the lives of so many Texas music fans from all around the globe, this is one of those country music deaths that hits especially hard.
Over the last few days, fans and fellow artists have been sharing their memories and spinning Charlie Robison records, remembering a songwriter who was instrumental in building the Texas music scene. But along with recalling the great songs and the fond memories, it seems fitting for remember that Charlie Robison was also a fierce titan for independent country music and artists controlling their own destiny as opposed to adhering to the rules of Music Row.
Some of you might recall back in 2015 when the CEO of the Sony Nashville record label Gary Overton notoriously said in an interview with The Tennessean, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” It was like a shot heard ’round the independent country world at a time when independent country was really beginning to gain steam. It was at the very height of Bro-Country, but scrappy independent artists were starting to rise up to challenge the system.
The Gary Overton quote was originally published on February 21st. But the week before, Blackberry Smoke shocked the country music world when their album Holding All The Roses debuted at #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart off the strength of their grassroots success. Then the very next week, Texas music stalwart Aaron Watson shocked the world again by going #1 with his album aptly titled The Underdog.
When Saving Country Music interviewed Aaron Watson about his #1 success, he had his own quote to be remembered by history. “My name is Aaron Watson. I’m not played on country radio. And I have the #1 record in country music this week. I do exist.”
This success for Aaron Watson started opening doors for him that independent artists often didn’t have access to at the time. While in Nashville, Watson was invited to appear on The Bobby Bones Show. Bones was already vilified by quite a few in independent country, but nobody could fault Aaron Watson for taking advantage of the opportunity. But then Bobby Bones took advantage of the fact that Watson called one of the women that worked for Bobby “sweetheart” to say that Watson was a sexist.
So then all of this—the Gary Overton quote and the ludicrous “sexist” accusation against Aaron Watson—landed on the desk of Charlie Robison, and he was having none of it. Hot under the collar and out for blood, Charlie Robison took to social media to post one of the most wicked scorched earth excoriations in the history of country music.
A few words for Gary Overton. I was signed by Warner bros, and Sony during the days I had the patience to smile while ignorant pencil pushing, mullet headed expense account rapists like you ran those labels. I’m on the road right now and just finished putting on a show for the folks in Shreveport. That’s a town u call a blip on ur screen.
I don’t know Aaron Watson well but I do know you well though I’ve never met you. What I know about you is so sad. I spent so many years in Nashville watching you ignorant wastes of space sit behind your big desk and act like me and all the the Texas/Red dirt artists don’t exist. Well Mr. “I have a job today but as soon as Florida/Georgia line goes out of style, and believe me dumbass they will, you will not exist.” Saying that music does not exist unless it’s on the radio is like saying you don’t exist because you never got laid until you got your two week job as the head of Walmart Records.
I probably have a bigger house than you (for the time being because you’ll be back in the Mail room like all the other Nashville (heads). I’ll still be playing for crowds that have been loyal to me for 25 years) lemme cut you in on some people who don’t exist. Willie Nelson, Billy joe Shaver, Robert Keen, Vincent Van Gogh and Picasso didn’t exist for a long time. Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, and the ever terrible songwriter Steve Earle. When the world of music fans go to bed tonight they’ll be singing these amazing artists in their head. You my friend will be wondering how you could ever reach your unreachable place in the annals of mediocrity. Have fun hovering above your tombstone and listening to people say “who the fuck is that?” as they make they’re way to Townes’s grave. I’m sorry I lost my train of thought, I think it was “who doesn’t exist?” Yep that’s it gary overton. Sweetheart.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, this might have been the greatest mic drop moment in country music history. The rant immediately went viral, with Bro-Country kings Florida Georgia Line chiming in, saying “Lost a lot of respect for a great songwriter Charlie Robison today. The country music community has always been about respect and support. May we never live in bitterness towards the ever evolving genre that’s been so good to us.”
But many more agreed with Robison, and potentially, it became one of the kill shots for the career of Sony Nashville’s Gary Overton. Though the label and others insisted it had nothing to do with the backlash to the quote, Gary Overton announced his resignation on March 17th—only a few weeks after his original quote was published, and in the midst of the continuing fallout from it.
On March 20th, Saving Country Music talked to Charlie Robison about his rant and the aftermath, asking him if it was satisfying.
Yeah it really is, and not just for me. It was a shot across the bow at me, my ex-wife, my brother, and everybody else that has been bullied by these guys for so long. It kind of happened accidentally after a show one night. I wrote that initial rant if you will just really pissed off, more so for other independent artists that I’m a fan of. It more pissed me off that someone could say something like that about my peers or people that I have looked up to all my life and think they could get away with it.
These days with social media, you’re not going to be able to say anything or do anything without someone calling you on it, and I just happened to be the guy that called him on it. I thought I was going to wake up the next morning and see 50 ‘likes’ and that’s all there was going to be to it. I had no earthly idea that Florida Georgia Line was going to jump in the mix and that this was going to end up maybe forcing him out of his position as president [of Sony Nashville]. You know, I feel for his family, but to tell you the truth, I really don’t give a shit about him.
Charlie Robison’s rant was one of the many things that helped set off the independent country music revolution that we are currently in the midst of. It helped galvanize country fans against the mainstream country system and the oligarchical control of country radio. Artists like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Cody Jinks joined in upsetting the apple cart, which led to the wild success were seeing from Tyler Childers, Billy Strings, and Zach Bryan today.
It was later in 2015 at November’s CMA Awards that despite the continued commercial success of Bro-Country and acts like Florida Georgia Line, a relative unknown artist at the time named Chris Stapleton walked away with many of the major awards despite receiving no love from radio himself, and barely selling any albums, officially signaling the end of the Bro-Country era, and the emergence of artists who didn’t need radio for success.
Charlie Robison said at one point in his epic rant to Gary Overton, “Have fun hovering above your tombstone and listening to people say “who the fuck is that?” as they make they’re way to Townes’s grave.”
And many of those same people will be making their way to Charlie Robison’s grave in the coming years to mourn the loss of a man who contributed greatly to the Texas music canon, and was also unafraid to stand up for himself and all his peers.
Charlie Robison is gone too soon. But just like Townes, he will never be forgotten.