A few miles northeast of the old town square and barbecue joints that made Lockhart famous, Austin country singer-songwriter Bruce Robison has built a recording studio on a 5-acre spread alongside grasslands, trees and a pond. And when we say “built,” we’re talking not just gear and soundproofing, but walls and door frames.
“If you look around, everything’s a little crooked,” jokes Robison, who grew up in Bandera around family members who worked in construction. “I know a little bit of framing, a little bit of how certain things work, and how to get help with the things I needed help with. It’s not high-quality, but I love the handmade aspect of it.”
The music he’s been making here since breaking ground a few years ago is high-quality, though. It includes episodes of “The Next Waltz,” an online outlet that has featured songs and interview clips with the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, Lee Ann Womack, the Turnpike Troubadours and his wife, Kelly Willis.
Robison also used the studio to record “Bruce Robison & the Back Porch Band,” which comes out Friday. Coming on the heels of two duo projects with Willis in 2013 and 2014, this new album is Robison’s first under his own name in nearly a decade. He celebrates its release with performances at 5 p.m. Thursday at Waterloo Records and 7 p.m. Saturday at Antone’s.
Like the vibe Robison strives to create on “The Next Waltz” with old-school gear and a warm, intimate session room, his new record is loose and laid-back. Little bits of banter often bridge one song to the next, or sometimes one section of a song to another.
Mixing original material with tunes from largely under-the-radar Austin writers including Christy Hays, Damon Bramblett and Joe Dickens — plus a cover of the Who’s “Squeeze Box” that Robison says he’s been playing live since his Broken Spoke days — “Bruce Robison & the Back Porch Band” feels like the kind of record that once grew on trees in the full bloom of Austin’s 1970s outlaw-country heyday.
“I’ve always said, not only did they sound like they weren’t trying to make a million dollars, they sounded like they were trying NOT to make a million dollars,” Robison says about records such as “Viva Terlingua” by Jerry Jeff Walker, who was his very first guest on “The Next Waltz.”
“It has this great cacophony of sound of just people having fun, because we really were,” Robison says of making the record with ace local musicians including Geoff Queen, Conrad Choucroun and Warren Hood, plus guests including his wife and Jack Ingram. “I continue to try and rough this music up, because of the way music sounded to me when I was a kid. It just needs to feel that way to me. When it gets too slick, too antiseptic, it just drives me nuts.”
We spoke with Robison at length about the new record, the studio, the online series, the Austin/Lockhart connection and more.
American-Statesman: How would you describe ‘The Next Waltz’ series to someone unfamiliar with it?
Bruce Robison: I think the easiest way would be to call it a label. It’s a place for making new music and putting it out. But what “putting music out” is in this day and age is a blank slate. In the 1940s with the “Grand Ole Opry,” it was easy to see where it would be: on AM radio. And “Austin City Limits” (in the ’70s), PBS was a great place for that. But if you started either one of those things now, those things would probably not be true; it would be online. If you have something new, how are you going to get this out? How are people going to access this? So that’s the bigger part of it.
The greater challenge may be how to make it work financially. How much have you thought about that?
Oh, man, tons. Way more than I would want to. Because really, I do want to make music, and so much of our time these days is supposed to be promoting ourselves through social media, or licking envelopes to send out merchandise, or any of a million different things.
I think in any business that has been completely disrupted, there’s multiple revenue streams that you’re chasing. There’s streaming and downloads, and there’s merchandise, and there’s advertising and sponsorship on the online platforms. And there could be possibly a crowdsource angle to it.
How did the visual elements become integral to ‘The Next Waltz’?
You’ve got to have video in this day and age, both to tell the stories and because that’s the way people are consuming it many times, on YouTube and stuff. But also to have some real estate where you can have sponsorship attached to this music, to have them be a partner in making it. I do think that it is going to be a whole new approach, and there are some exciting possibilities with it. It’s a very challenging and fun thing to think about.
What was the reason for crediting ‘the Back Porch Band’ in the new album’s title?
That term is meant to evoke something, both with the record and with the live show. As the world gets more rock ’n’ roll and louder and everything else, I’m always trying to get more on a back porch, to feel that vibe. (The music) to me feels really rockin’, but the way we record it, it’s just acoustic instruments.
That’s the thing that’s kind of been lost, is the way that this music can have such impact, even when it’s just acoustic instruments and vocals and stuff. It doesn’t have to be folky at all. It’s raw and compelling and just really rocking.
So much of this does recall the early Jerry Jeff Walker records. Is that why he was your first guest on ‘The Next Waltz’?
There really isn’t anybody who is more of an influence on me. My mom was into his music; we had the eight-track tapes and I listened to them over and over again. I was really fortunate to become friends with him after I moved to town, and he was an early supporter of me and my brother Charlie. So that’s just been one of those crazy experiences where you get to be around your heroes.
I was trying to tell Rodney Crowell one time, when he was yelling at me because I was making him feel uncomfortable. But then he tells all these stories about the Beatles, and I’m like, “You (artists like Crowell and Walker) were our Beatles! You were who I was listening to when I was 14 years old, man.” And he says, “Oh, really?” That made a little more sense to him.
There’s been some migration with Austin musicians relocating to the Lockhart area lately.
It doesn’t surprise me at all. When I went into Lockhart, I thought, this feels like a small town. I’m from a small town. And this doesn’t feel like a town that a big city has eaten up. It’s far enough away that it still feels like there’s distance.
I love living in Austin still; I’m really proud of being there. Kelly and I have been in the same neighborhood for over 20 years. But at the same time, we’re all struggling with how big it is. We’re all dealing with it in our own ways. Part of my way of staying in Austin is having a bit of an escape valve and a release.
I love coming out here. I love digging a damn hole in the ground and just putting the work in. A big part of everything that has ever happened to me that was good is a lot of hard work — years and decades leading up to every crazy opportunity that happened out of left field.
Is ‘The Next Waltz’ an extension of that?
Yeah. The idea of what this entity would be has been evolving for a long time. I really do want to be a part of making music, and Austin hasn’t always been that great at the business part of it. I’ve always thought that we could — and now we have to, because there’s nothing the industry can do for us. It doesn’t exist anymore; it’s just a shell.
What has evolved is trying to figure out what it is, and how it works, and all of those questions that we’ve been talking about. How do you put it out? How does it make money? How do you promote it? All this kind of stuff. But we still need the quality to be high. So that’s the same struggle; none of it changes.
Bruce Robison & the Back Porch Band
When: 5 p.m. Thursday
Where: Waterloo Records, 600-A N. Lamar Blvd.
RECORD RELEASE SHOW
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Antone’s, 305 E. Fifth St.