A star athlete and self-confessed hell-raiser, Charlie Robison is the brash, larger-than-life character you'd expect to hear singing Texas country. He's got a folksy, forthright manner; likes his beer; and approaches life with a seat-of-the pants joie de vivre that's always made him the "Life of the Party," to steal the title of his 1998 album.
But don't let the sunny cover and title of his latest release, "Beautiful Day," fool you " there's plenty of bittersweet sentiment running through it.
The disc comes five years after his previous release, "Good Times," and on the heels of his August 2008 divorce from Dixie Chick Emily Erwin, after nine years of marriage. He's described it as his breakup album, and it showcases a much more personal side of Robison. From originals like the brokenhearted, hard-drinking "Middle of the Night"; and bluegrass-flavored, turn-a-smile-to-the-wind, ode to newfound freedom, "Feeling Good"; to covers of Keith Gattis' "Reconsider" and Bruce Springsteen's "Racing in the Street"; it's an album about hope and getting back on your feet when that fails you.
"When I sat down to write the record, we were just right in the middle, at that tipping point of whether or not we were going to try to save the marriage," Robison said. "It was kind of the worst time. But I knew I had to get a record out "¦ with everything that was so fresh and emotional in my life, all the ups and downs, I really didn't have any choice but to write what was going on. I had things inside myself that I had to address."
Lending a hand for the record was longtime friend/guitarist Charlie Sexton, whose supple playing shines at the forefront without upstaging Robison. Its crackling sinewy presence blends cowpoke twang, jangle and rockabilly bite to help Robison really fill out the album.
"We've known each other for about 20 years. He worked with me on my 'Life of the Party,' so whenever I was writing these songs, it just was obvious that he was the perfect fit to play guitar on the record," Robison said. "He really brought a mood, aggression and just a whole vibe. The way he played really drove the way the record sounds."
"Beautiful Day" is only the second album Robison's made since leaving the dog-and-pony show of the major labels. In his mid-40s now, he's over the pursuit of commercial radio, a goal he only went along with begrudgingly. These days, he's happy with the fans he has, and anyone else who comes along is welcome, but he's past pandering.
"I've built an audience and gotten to the point where I don't need any kind of commercial appeal to bridge my career," he said. "I just concentrate right now on making good music. Radio play or all that other crap doesn't really enter into it."
Robison is happier this way. When first Warner Bros., then Columbia tried to rope him into being a star, he chafed. He told radio programmers they were "too stupid" to play him, describing artists with integrity as "dolphins in a world of dumb sharks." While his perspective hasn't changed, he's more comfortable where he is musically, and doesn't feel the need to talk so much about it.
"With age, you have to settle down a little bit. So I was young and having fun," he said. "I've got quite a few quotes out there that I kind of shake my head when I hear them back."
Of course, that doesn't mean he's in any hurry to return to "Nashville Star," where in 2003, Robison was one of the first-season judges on the television talent contest. "That was like going to a donkey show," he said. "It's cool you were there, but man, I'll never go back and see that again. Once was definitely enough."
Robison is simply content where he is, and wouldn't change a thing that happened along the way.
"I think that the successes " and the things I'm doing right right now " had much more to do with the mistakes that I've made and what I've learned from that rather than the things I did right," he said. "I never learn anything from doing anything right. If everything had gone right the way I wanted it, I would probably be someone who totally sucked ass."
Charle Robison with Seth James perform at 9 p.m. Friday at Wormy Dog Saloon, 311 E. Sheridan. "Chris Parker