“I had this sound in my head,” says country singer, songwriter and guitarist Bruce Robison about his new album Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band. “Jackson Browne’s early records, Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua, Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger—these recordings had a raw immediacy. The place that I’ve built and the way we record is part of an effort to get that sound in my head out.”
That "place" is his recording studio in Lockhart, Texas, that is filled with analog gear from the 1970s, including a 9-foot plate reverb made out of tin. That "sound" is musicians playing together, side by side, in a cozy room, just like where any group of friends might gather to share stories and songs. It’s a sound Robison has captured brilliantly on Back Porch, which he will bring to the stage this Friday at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck.
The music and studio banter on Back Porch is easy going, much like Robison’s imitable accent from Bandera, Texas. His affection for Bandera is apparent on the Back Porch track “Sweet Dreams,” which features singer-songwriter Kelly Willis, his wife of 20 years, on guitar and backing vocals. The lyrics describe some of the colorful characters he encountered as a young music fan.
“It’s a very small town, but it’s a tourist town,” says Robison about Bandera. “They'd have street festivals that would get out of hand. A lot of drinking, a lot of people who were living out country songs. The music was just part of the fabric of life.”
Not surprisingly, Robison was also a big reader as a child, and literature inspired his earliest efforts at setting words to music.
“When I started writing songs, I went through a phase of reading a lot of Larry McMurtry,” says Robison about the writer who penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove. “His unabashed Texas-ness is something I love and try to have in my work. Later, when I read John Steinbeck, I felt like I could hear that kind of storytelling coming through Guy Clark, Willie Nelson or Townes Van Zandt. I see myself as a continuation of that, whenever country music took a kind of ambitious leap.”
After moving to Austin and then Nashville, Robison spent 10 years writing and shopping his music around to the country music elite. He struck gold in 2001 when Tim McGraw and Faith Hill recorded his song “Angry All the Time,” a brutal confession of a couple’s unspoken and unresolved anger, which soared to No. 1 on the country music charts. He eventually parlayed his success as a songwriter into The Next Waltz, an online platform designed to promote and deliver the music he loves by combining “the old ways of recording with the new ways of filming and distributing it.” The site uses high-definition video and streaming technology to document and share the process of recording vintage-sounding albums, including Back Porch.
“Technology makes it easier and easier to be mediocre,” says Robison about his commitment to use analog gear to record music in just one or two takes, the way his music heroes did back in the day. “Now, when I help somebody with an overdub and they do a hundred takes of my vocal on a digital track, they take all of that digital information and fashion it into one song. It just seems crazy to me.”
Friday, April 28 at 7 p.m. $25–27. McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk St. 713-528-5999. mcgonigels.com