“Over the last 60 days, I’ve done something like 70 shows,” Robison said.
He’s been building his career in true grassroots fashion for many years and now, with the current state of the country music industry, it looks like his time may have come. Robison’s new album on Columbia/Lucky Dog, Step Right Up, is catching the attention of country radio at a time when the pop-country formula is floundering and programmers are taking a chance on alternatives.
“I feel like he’s a guy who can bring some integrity back to country music right now,” Robison’s manager, Steve Hoiberg, told POLLSTAR.
The opportunity is giving the alt-country musician a chance to broaden his fanbase. Robison likes that idea, but the beauty of his situation is it allows him to make a living with or without radio.
“Charlie’s awful unique in that his live performance is strong enough, good enough better than most in my mind to where he can tour and build an audience regardless of whether or not radio comes to the table,” Hoiberg said.
The manager knows all about the grassroots approach as he was the artist’s agent for four years at Monterey Peninsula Artists. Hoiberg took the management reins about a year ago and Robison signed on with William Morris Nashville last week.
His new agent, Mark Roeder, said he’s been a fan for many years.
“From an agent’s perspective, I admire Charlie in that he has spent years building a loyal fan base by touring, selling tickets and winning fans with his energetic live show,” Roeder said. “Charlie is not about one single or one record.”
The raw, unpretentiousness of Robison’s eclectic spin on roots country music is a direct reflection of the man himself. When he’s not on the road, he and his wife, Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks, work on their two Texas ranches.
“Right now, all our cows are having calves and the horses are having foals, so this is kind of a tough time to be away,” he said. “But it’s my other love so you gotta do both of them, you know.”
It’s ironic that the one “country” performer who’s a real cowboy is the same one who refuses to fit into the stereotype.
“It’s like I’m the only person in country music who doesn’t wear a cowboy hat and, I think, the only person who actually knows which is the right end of a cow,” he chuckled.
In fact, Robison’s refusal to conform to the Music City formula spoiled the first major label deal he had with Warner Bros. Nashville. An album he recorded for the company was never released.
“At the time, it seemed like the worst thing that ever happened to me but in reality, it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Robison said. “The more times you get turned down, the more pissed you get. It’s like, ‘I’m just gonna get even better. At some point, I’m gonna get good enough to where they just can’t say no.'”
After that experience, Robison swore off Nashville; the Austin music scene was far more open to diversity.
“I hate to be like the big Texas tourism commercial, but there’s just so few boundaries musically down there,” he said. “It’s like people just don’t care if you play a blues song then a conjunto-spiced song and then an Irish-flavored song. It’s all just good music to them.”
Though Robison was gun shy of Nashville, his good buddy Blake Chancey of Sony Music Nashville approached him with an idea that made sense form an independent record company inside of a major label that would enable artists to have creative control while offering a huge promotions machine if they need one.
“They’re marketing the more songwritery, the more alternative kind of stuff through Lucky Dog and they’re marketing the stuff that’s going to country radio through Columbia, so it’s the best of both worlds,” Robison said.
His current album’s debut single, “I Want You Bad,” is getting its fair share of airplay and Robison is more than happy with that. He doesn’t expect overnight stardom, nor does he necessarily want it.
“I do not aspire to have a career as big as my wife’s. That scares me to death,” he said laughing. He added that it was quite an experience visiting Emily on the Dixie Chicks’ last tour.
“They’d be in a 19,000-seat coliseum and I’d be sitting on the side of the stage just watching a sold-out show with everybody just going nuts. My wife is on this huge stage with those fans blowing her hair and looking like the biggest rock star in the world. It’s just like, ‘Wow! I’m married to her.'”
Robison said a career more the size of Lyle Lovett’s would fit him much better playing theatres and sheds and building a fanbase that’s not single driven.
According to Robison, “Timing is 90 percent of genius,” and if things go as planned, now will be the time. Touring straight through to next year, the artist will headline plenty of shows and open for mainstream country and left-of-center acts, as well, Hoiberg said.
“Charlie’s music is unique and I think it works as well in front of someone like John Mellencamp as it does in front of Travis Tritt or George Strait,” he said.