Charlie Robison,
Good Times
(Dualtone, 2004)

Heretofore, Charlie Robison was not much more than a name to me. All I knew of him was that he was a Texas singer-songwriter -- of whom there are more than any number of sticks could be shaken at -- married to one of the Dixie Chicks. This CD, which I put on with minimal expectations, proved to be a pleasant surprise.

Produced by Lloyd Maines (a veteran Texas musician who is the father of another Dixie Chick), Good Times is a solid, intelligent excursion into mostly, though not entirely, cliche-free Texas It's the sort of material that feels but doesn't particularly sound like either traditional or modern country, yet isn't exactly rock or folk either. All of these influences seem seamlessly woven together to create something new. If not as memorable a record as Waylon Jennings's 1976 classic Dreamin' My Dreams, which was a country record that didn't sound like any country music anybody had ever heard, it's still a respectable contender in this distinctive genre, whatever that genre is.

Not all of the songs here are Robison's. In fact, the album's most distinctive song, "The Bottom," a gloomy tale that depends on a skilled and careful use of metaphor, is written by Waylon Payne, son of the late Sammi Smith. Payne is a fairly young man, and if this is representative of his current and future work, he and it will bear watching. Terry Allen's nostalgic "Flatland Boogie" is somehow much better than it deserves to be, and Keith Gattis contributes two decent songs, "El Cerrito Place" and "Big City Blues," the latter marred, albeit not fatally, by a third verse that comes close to unintentional parody.

Robison's own writing has something of the mordant humor of John Prine. The bawdy "Love Means Never Having to Say You're Hungry," which Prine could have written, is downright hilarious. "New Year's Day" is an obscure joke about cross-dressing cheerleaders. Far more somber is the shockingly bitter, beyond-unsentimental love song "Always." The closest thing here to a folk ballad, "Magnolia" -- set in a spare acoustic arrangement -- closes the album. Almost elliptically, it tells the story of a murder from the point of view of its victim. Not the first time this has been done -- Chris Knight used the same narrative device in his "Long Black Highway" (on his 2004 disc The Jealous Kind, which I have reviewed here previously) -- but it still manages to pack a wallop.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 2 April 2005

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