“Texas songwriter” is one of those job descriptions -- like “French chef” or “Kenyan runner” -- that packs a lot of implied historical weight. Any occupational title that invites immediate comparison to Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett, and Willie Nelson is not for the faint of heart.
But Bruce Robison is more than up to the task, and his latest set of stellar songs, The New World (Robison’s sixth album release), merely confirms what everybody knew already: this cat is a tunesmith to be reckoned with. A longtime hometown favorite in Austin, in the last couple of years his songs, No. 1 hits like "Angry All the Time" (Faith Hill & Tim McGraw), "Travelin' Soldier" (Dixie Chicks) and "Wrapped" (George Strait) and another Top 5 hit with Strait’s version of "Desperately," have worked their way indelibly into the American consciousness. Real songwriters know that it’s not about how many units you move so much as whether people sing your songs to themselves when they’re alone. By either standard, Bruce Robison is among the first rank of Texas -- and, by extension, American -- songwriters.
Like the good small-town boy he is (Bandera, Texas, in case you’re wondering), Robison is always quick to give props to his family. But it’s pretty easy to be inspired by the folks around the dinner table when your wife is a much-admired alt-country thrush (Kelly Willis), your brother is a red-hot singer-songwriter in his own right (Charlie Robison), and your sister-in-law plays banjo and sings in a locally popular group known as the Dixie Chicks (Emily Robison). Never mind the rest of Texas; just being the best songwriter at a Robison family outing would be a hell of a distinction.
Of course, The New World is America, not just Texas, and Robison brings the full wild range of American music to bear on his songcraft here. Just for starters: the sunny C&W backbeat of "The New One," the world-weary soul balladry of "Bad Girl Blues," the stripped-down rockabilly drive of "Twistin'," and the relentless stomp of "The Hammer," recalling The Band in its heyday. It's a musical spectrum that might get away from a less confident artist, but here it just underscores the wide-open embrace of Robison's voice and viewpoint: everybody's welcome, even -- especially -- life's losers. The New World is a windows-down road trip across the country with a buddy who's stopped looking for trouble but can't keep himself from taking a detour by its last known address.
And in the plainspoken poetry of its lyrics, The New World is also something simpler and deeper: the same old world, seen with new eyes. Robison's characters have often lived large if not well, and some of the album's best songs examine how people deal -- or fail to deal -- with their pasts. In "California '85," the bitterness of lost love is softened by the fact that misery loves company, and by the third irresistible sing-along chorus ("It goes well with her lies"), you may have forgotten how sad you're supposed to be. Contrast that with "Larosse," in which a broken man sells his one remaining companion -- a horse he's raised from infancy -- with a lifetime's worth of regret and recrimination: "I'm tired of the look on his face."
If The New World's unsparing but compassionate look at lost souls feels real, so does its overall hopefulness, as in the playful talking blues of "Only," wherein a serial seducer cheerfully admits that he's finally fallen hard. "I'm bettin' on the new one," goes another song, with an optimism that feels both truthful and earned: the fact that things don't always work out means it's that much sweeter when they do.
In his clear-eyed, deeply felt songs, Bruce Robison does what great songwriters have always done: he takes the reality that surrounds us every day and makes it new again. Faded, careworn lives turn out to be rich with meaning when looked at from a slightly different angle, if you’ll just take the time . . . and Robison takes the time. The results are heartbreaking, hilarious, sweet, and stirring, as these songs confirm after even one listen.
Bruce Robison doesn’t require introductions anymore. He’s made himself heard in the hearts of people across the country, and his place in our national musical history is secure. But you still have to envy those lucky pilgrims who are about to discover The New World.
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