There’s a couple of buses out in the parking lot of Charley B’s in Lubbock, Texas. Charley B’s, Lubbock’s proportional answer to Ft. Worth’s Billy Bob’s, is an old converted Albertson’s grocery store that dominates a shopping center on the north side of town. Inside, identical bar fronts line the perimeter with plenty of ample seating. A proper dance floor is located right in the center of the colossal room while the stage is found nestled squarely on the back wall with what could be called a pit for standing and watching the band. Go to any town in Texas with a comparable population and you’ll find at least one Charley B’s. They may not go back that name or be as nice, but they’re there.
Jack Ingram, Bruce Robison and Charlie Robison (and Pat Green, Cross Canadian Ragweed, and Jason Boland & The Stragglers for good measure) built these rooms. They may not have poured the foundation, framed the ceiling or put up the drywall, but they’re around in entertainment districts in college towns for one sole reason — the rise of Texas Country. They’re what Ingram calls “honky-tonks with disco balls.”
“Unleashed Live,” says Ingram, “or as we sometimes call it, The Whiskey Debacle of 1999.”
18 years ago, Unleashed Live was released. It was a live album recorded at New Braunfels’ Gruene Hall by Texas songwriters Bruce Robison, Charlie Robison and Jack Ingram. The night recorded was capping off a three-week run of shows by the Lucky Dog Records labelmates. It was set up by the suits of the label as a way of promoting the trio and their latest album efforts, which were all released on Lucky Dog.
Wrapped by Bruce, Life of the Party by Charlie and Hey You by Ingram represented the best attributes of country and folk music — what would later be called Texas Country — happening within the state in the late ‘90s. You had intense storytelling coming from all angles on the three albums. Precise and intimate. Intoxicating, wry humor. Fiery and bold. It was the dive bar downtown, a honky-tonk Saturday night and reflective mornings on the back porch. Throughout the three albums, there was an emotional itch that was being scratched. On the surface, they may have felt decisively different, but deep down, the three songwriters were exploring the same emotional territory.
“This is a relationship that we’ve had for so long,” says Bruce. “It kind of has a center where we were all really tight in 1998 and 1999 and made this music that really had a big effect on the rest of our careers even though things changed. A lot of different directions went after that moment. But, it was such a seminal time in our careers where we kind of put some things together that really had far-reaching effects on what we did after that.”
We’re sitting at a square table in the corner of Charley B’s green room. Leather couches, a table of vegetable trays and water bottles and a couple of end tables in the shape of Texas accent the room. While Charlie resting his voice, Bruce and Ingram are joining me for a podcast sitdown (Hear the full interview over on The New Slang Podcast later this week).
“A lot of what makes this what it is — we didn’t know it at the time — but Turnpike, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen and a bunch of these artists that have gone to do great things, our thing becomes bigger in myth or lore or whatever because they kept it alive,” adds Ingram. “It makes it more important than it felt.”
Unleashed Live was, for all intents and purposes, a sampler record for the label. It captured high marks from the Texas trio firmly in their element, a honky tonk bar in Texas. Each of the three contributed four songs, with the vast majority logically being from Wrapped, Life of the Party and Hey You. In reality, Lucky Dog created a CliffNotes for the early days of Texas Country.
As with anything, it’s difficult to point to an exact moment modern Texas Country became its own distinct movement and not just a passing fad. Robert Earl Keen’s A Bigger Piece of Sky and Green’s Dancehall Dreamer are certainly viable candidates. But at any rate, Wrapped, Life of The Party and Hey You are pivotal moments to Texas Country’s success. You can’t tell the story of Texas Country without the three. By all means, they’re all first-ballot Hall of Famers.
Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)
20 years later, the trio of songwriters are still going strong. Tonight, they’re on their final night on a short run of Unleashed Live Reunion shows that have taken them from one end of the state to the other. With a vibrant band backing them, they all take the stage at once. For much of the night, they’re going back songs they wrote from the Unleashed Era. For some, it’s strictly striking a nostalgic chord. Play the songs of my youth while I sip the low-carb beer of my present self. There’s certainly something to that. There are moments where the three look back on the past with various shades of fondness.
“I wish I had it. I think Jack wrote me a freaking letter by snail mail,” says Bruce about the first time hearing Ingram. “He was really complimentary of my first little independent recording that didn’t go anywhere.” Shortly after that, Charlie, then Bruce would join Ingram for short runs across the state.
“He reached out to us, and I don’t know, he seemed to have a master plan,” says a grinning Bruce.
On stage, they argue like brothers with brief center stage huddles before breaking off to their microphones. Charlie and Jack criss-cross the stage so often, they’re guitar cords get tangled and must be straightened out from time to time. Bruce ventures over towards the middle at times, but for the most part, doesn’t contribute to the coil and confusion.
With them playing all at once and with the same backing band, you hear their distinct voices and styles as songwriters. Still, a common thread is the ties that bind. It’s like watching three planets orbit the same star.
Ingram revs the engine with songs like “Mustang Burn” and “Barbie Doll” while Bruce delivers delicate waltzing lullabies with “Desperately,” ” Wrapped” and “Rayne, Louisiana.” Charlie leads honky-tonk singalong anthems with “New Year’s Day” and “Barlight.” Each song leaves you yearning for more until the next in line begins strumming the opening chords to their next.
Often, Bruce is strumming his mandolin on Ingram and Charlie’s songs. He throws in a fierce and timely harmonica on Charlie’s “New Years Day.” As one would expect, they trade off on harmonies throughout the 90-minute set. But just as often, they set back and watch one another–namely when Charlie and Ingram set on the drum riser as Bruce ends the night with an acoustic rendition of “Travlin’ Soldier.”
There’s something timeless about their performance. The songs may be twenty years old, but they feel as crisp and new as the day they were written. The emotions they evoke from the likes of “Biloxi,” “Angry All The Time” and “Loving County” are strong and unfaded. They still sing with conviction and passion. Even if you had just stumbled in for the night and never heard of the three, their performance would still have struck you.They tap into those strong raw emotions–cynicism, confusion, grief, etc–and make sense of it all.
“The same reason I started my very first song is the same reason why I start a song today,” explains Ingram. “The exact same reason. It’s like, I feel like shit. My heart hurts. There’s a pressure that only gets released when I make these lines work. I get to [exhales].”