Bruce Robison came bustling through the door…and brother, when a guy who’s six-foot-seven bustles, he really bustles.
Robison was in mid-hue-and-cry as he entered the front room of his Premium Recording Service studio, lauding the performance of University of Texas quarterback Vince Young in UT’s jaw-dropping national title victory over USC the previous night in the Rose Bowl.
“I heard Johnny Cash on the way over here,” he was saying, “An icon. And now Vince Young is that same sort of icon. Man, he’s painted his masterpiece. I wouldn’t mind at all if he went away.”
In point of fact, Young would announce plans a few days later to forgo his senior year at Texas, the better to rake in millions in the NFL. But that wasn’t really the point.
As a kid who had been steeped in the lore and bathed in the blood of the Church of High School Football, with services every Friday night across the Lone Star State, Robison was still surfing on the adrenaline that had nearly all of Austin coasting on a pigskin high. His wife, singer Kelly Willis, was expecting their fourth child within the week and, as Bruce joked onstage a few nights later, the baby boy was going to be christened “Vince Young Robison.” (He relented, almost certainly to Kelly’s relief; the youngster, born January 10, was christened Joseph Willis Robison.)
Nor was the baby boy his only impending offspring. Robison was meeting a reporter after dropping his other kids off at school to talk about Eleven Stories, his forthcoming album. His first record in four years, it marks a return to form for a songwriter who has already crafted big ol’ hits for Tim McGraw & Faith Hill, Lee Ann Womack, George Strait, and the Dixie Chicks.
Robison himself had played football, albeit with a notable lack of enthusiasm and (to hear him tell it) natural ability when he was growing up in the Texas hill country town of Bandera. The way he tells it, it was less a matter of inclination than of Manifest Destiny.
“There was so much pressure from the town because I was so big,” he recalled. “You had to play football in Bandera. You just had to. It was weird. If you didn’t, it was like you weren’t straight, or something. It’s high school ball. Sports is crazy.”
It didn’t help that Robison’s father was a coach, or that his slightly older brother Charlie was a charismatic star who played with effortless grace.
“I think Charlie could have been Roger Clemens if he hadn’t gotten hurt playing football,” said Bruce of his sibling. “He blew his knee out in the last game, and he still got a full ride, got a full baseball scholarship to Texas State. He was a prototype for what you see now, which is a big strong kid that can throw hard and still have a couple of good pitches.”
At least — and mercifully, from Bruce’s point of view — their father wasn’t the boys’ coach. “Our parents divorced and he took a job in a middle school in San Antonio that paid more than coaching in high school in Bandera,” he recalled.
“And, from a very early age, he never pushed me into sports,” he adds, “because he knew I wasn’t any good.” (Robison’s modesty is almost a reflex; it’s worth noting that he went to college on a basketball scholarship.)
Robison seems to view almost everything but his music through a humorously self-deprecating lens. Regarding his habitually rumpled appearance, he says, “I’m not much into the bling. I look more and more like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island every day.”
It’s a fact that Robison looks like he takes his sartorial cues from unmade beds. But his rumpled, unstructured good looks tend to put guys at ease and probably bring out a certain maternal aspect in women.
His good-natured po’-mouth routine loses a lot of traction when one considers he’s married to one of the most beautiful women in a town largely overrun with what sportswriter Dan Jenkins is fond of calling “shapely adorables.”
(Their courtship, according to Willis, was a lot closer in spirit to Homer and Marge than Romeo and Juliet. “We were friends with a lot of the same people,” she recalls. “But he acted like he hated me. He was rude to me all the time, and…” she had to admit, “…it piqued my curiosity.
“Then one night we were all hanging out together and we all wound up getting drunk, of course, and he grabbed me and kissed me. He said he thought everybody around me was kissing my butt and he didn’t want to come across as just another one of those guys. It’s been true love ever since.”)
Robison’s amiable litany of his shortcomings evaporates, however, when the subject turns to his songwriting. Although he is about as far from a preening egotist as it is possible for an artist to be, he takes a fierce, unvarnished pride in what he has achieved in the field of songcraft.