Goodtime Charlie has an ornery streak in him. The same reckless defiance that got Charlie Robison booted from Warner Bros. Nashville while in the midst of recording his mid-’90s label debut turned even more dangerous with 1998′s Life Of The Party, a corpse-littered song cycle that ended with a fantasy of Nashville in flames.
Now the question is whether that very same Nashville is ready to embrace that very same Charlie as the latest savior of mainstream country — the real deal, the guy who’ll shatter the mold, return some artistic credibility to the airwaves, and, oh yeah, move a few million units in the process.
Is Charlie, as the swaggering kickoff track to his new Step Right Up album puts it, the “Right Man For The Job”?
Clearly, the commercial stakes are higher than they were for Robison’s previous release. Last time out, Sony Nashville’s Lucky Dog imprint threw him a bone, giving him a small recording budget for Life Of The Party, complete creative freedom, and the sort of below-the-radar promotional nudge accorded music that stands little chance with country radio.
A few years later, times have changed. A mounting chorus in Nashville and beyond has anointed Robison the poster boy for a resurgence of progressive country, the make-or-break artist who can borrow the chip from Steve Earle’s shoulder and somehow turn it multiplatinum. And who just happens to be married to a Dixie Chick.
“As an industry, everyone’s grasping for an answer to the deterioration of country music’s success, and what kills me is the answer is sitting right there,” says Mike Kraski, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Sony Nashville. “It’s the same answer that there was to the slickness of ‘the Nashville sound’ and to the Urban Cowboy phenomenon — a return to artistry that’s honest and true, something that cannot be contrived. Charlie’s the right man at the right time.”
So the label’s committed to turning Charlie into a star?
“We’d better,” responds Kraski, with a nervous laugh, “or you won’t be talking to me the next time out.”
In mainstream country, a longer creative leash typically accompanies a tighter commercial collar, as the industry experiments to see what might possibly work before reverting to a reliance on formula. Almost invariably, when market share diminishes and sales plummet, major labels begin investing in artistry that would previously have been considered defiantly anticommercial, from Willie and Waylon in the ’70s, through Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle in the ’80s. At Nashville’s annual Country Radio Seminar, while the industry waits for the next Garth to arrive and the cloning to ensue, Cinderella Charlie was the belle of this year’s ball.
“When I walked through CRS this time, all these program directors were telling me they were huge fans and couldn’t wait to play the record, whereas, for the last two years, those people didn’t look in my direction,” Robison said.
“Every year there’s somebody who’s going to save country music, and now they’ve put that flag in my hand. I don’t expect that it’ll be a long ride, but I might get a couple of songs on the radio that are cooler than the rest, before Nashville finds a way to completely screw things up again. Somebody’s going to come along, sell a lot of records and make country radio totally awful the next 10 years. Thank God it wasn’t Brad Paisley, that little moron.”
But tell us what you really think, Charlie.
“After spending last week there, I’ve been out at the ranch in Bandera, building fence and just getting away from it all,” he continues. “It’s like the long shower you take after you’ve been raped.”
Talk to Robison long enough, and you start to feel that according him the substantial investment a commercial career demands is like handing over the keys to a brand new Cadillac — and then watching him peel away with a beer and cigarette in one hand, his other arm around some babe, careening around the corner at 70 mph, steering with his knees. Then again, if Nashville neuters those dangerous tendencies — the qualities that made Life Of The Party such a lethal delight — Charlie might as well be Travis Tritt, who showed how easily one of those standard-bearing saviors can morph into Kenny Rogers.