"We're all scared to take wrong steps these days," Bruce Robison says. "We're making it up as we go since the record industry fell apart."
Robison built his career writing and playing just as he wanted to: for himself. But he also got cuts the right way. That is, by making songs so good other artists just had to cover them. He wasn't really concerned with missteps back in the 1990s.
Among his standouts? "Travelin' Soldier," which the Dixie Chicks covered, and "Wrapped," recorded by George Strait. Both tunes went to No. 1. But Robison wrote neither song for those particular artists. The same goes for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's version of "Angry All The Time."
He just wrote and performed songs he loved. And superstars loved them, too.
But life and family came calling in the mid-2000s. He bowed out just before the bro country phase really kicked in, instead focusing more on being a dad. Eventually, he and his musical wife Kelly Willis came together for two albums in 2013 and 2014.
"Those projects were really a re-focus," he says. "I stepped back after being a recording musician for 25 years and said, 'How do I not repeat myself?'"
Willis' influence and urging pushed Robison to really follow through on his passions. He bought a plot of land in Lockhart and built his studio -- lovingly dubbed "The Bunker" -- from the ground up.
"It's the bane of her existence," Robison jokingly says. "It's my third studio, and I'm not proud of it, either." All in good fun, but truthfully, Robison created something to certainly be proud of.
The studio captures the vibe of "bygone" eras, as Robison puts it. It channels those famous reclusive spots like Muscle Shoals and Stax, where artists all gather in a room and really listen to each other.
"It's really different from the modern studio experience," Robison says. "And it really affects the outcome."
Now, Bruce Robison returns with his first new solo album in almost a decade. Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band follows the critically acclaimed singer down a nine-song journey largely inspired by a new love he found after his last solo record: The Next Waltz.
The Next Waltz is the result of Robison bringing amazing artists into his amazing space to record amazing songs and capturing the entire process. Again, it all goes back to the old days.
"They were trying to find the absolute best songs and put them with the absolute best artists," Robison says. "Songs that affected the culture. And that's what we're trying to get back to. It doesn't matter who wrote 'em!"
That attitude ties in perfectly to his own new record, where Robison mixes originals with classics. That includes a George Jones cut, "Still Doin' Time (In A Honky Tonk Prison)." It also features tracks like "Lake Of Fire," a Christy Hays tune that really captivates Robison.
"I love all the California canyon artists, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young," Robison says. "And 'Lake Of Fire' really reminds me of that. It takes me to an era of music I love so much."
But don't assume Robison won't also throw a song from The Who ("Squeezebox") in for good measure. It's all about making good music with good people (you can even hear Robison direct drummer Conrad Choucroun to play it "like Keith Moon").
"The players on this album are a rotating cast of people I've been making music with for 20 years," Robison explains. Sometimes its a raucous cast of troublemakers, like on "Paid My Dues," which features Jack Ingram, Jason Eady and Mickey Braun all having way too much fun to call it "work."
The whole record really comes together as a natural extension of The Next Waltz, which inspired much of the album. "We recorded about 25 songs, and I wish the album were 15 songs long," Robison notes. "But these nine really encapsulate what we're doing with The Next Waltz."
Since coming back a little stronger into music, Robison is embracing his role as a mentor. "I really don't want The Next Waltz to be about me," he says. "In my perfect world it's kind of a new label -- a creative space for people to make music."
Part of the allure with The Next Waltz is Robison reconnecting and re-engaging with the music landscape since really coming back into it. Acts like Turnpike Troubadours and Randy Rogers (who are still "the kids" to Robison). But it also means bringing legendary artists like Jerry Jeff Walker and Rodney Crowell into the mix.
The fact that The Next Waltz recording sessions took place between sessions for Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band just further drives point how connected they all are. And the sound -- a never-ending (or "eye rolling," as Robison puts it) pursuit at capturing what he hears in his head -- finally feels close to where it needs to be.
"I used to call my music 'lo-fi,' and people were like, 'Wait, you're trying to sound crappy?'" Robison laughs. But "back porch" is a much better term for what Robison is accomplishing at The Bunker, in every sense of the word.
Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band comes out Friday, April 28. You can catch Bruce out on the road for the remainder of 2017.