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All Cattle, No Hat

Rancher turned rocker Charlie Robison is too busy to worry about country-music orthodoxy.

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As double entendres go, those on Charlie Robison's "Love Means Never Having To Say You're Hungry" aren't exactly unprecedented. (Let's just say that, unlike Meatloaf, Robison is ready and willing to do anything for love, including that.) But for country music? The country scholars around this office sure weren't able to come up with a precedent, but Robison, speaking by phone from Greenville, South Carolina, on his current tour, is too much of a standup guy to take credit for breaking new ground.

"Actually, there is another one," Robison says. "Where we live there's this large lake outside of San Antonio called Medina Lake. And there was a local country band about 40 years ago that had a song called 'When the Moon Goes Down on Medina Lake I'll Be Going Down on You.' That was just a local thing, but a lot of the honky-tonk bands around here played that song when I was growing up."

Who knows if Robison's risqué tale will become a bar-band standard in his south-central Texas stomping grounds, but you sure aren't likely to be hearing it on mainstream radio or, despite my suggestion that he'd be able to finesse it, on Country Music Television.

"I don't know if that would be able to make it on CMT," Robison chuckles. "Maybe I'll make [a video] for the Playboy Channel."

But even if the subject matter is decidedly untraditional, "Love Means Never Having To Say You're Hungry" is still a country song. You can tell by the twangy guitars and honky-tonk piano. You can also tell because the recipient of Robison's generosity is his wife. Which brings us to yet another risky thing about the record, because chances are you're familiar with Robison's wife: the lanky banjo-playing Dixie Chick once known as Emily Erwin.

A full-time rancher from the small town of Bandera, Texas, Robison was the subject of the Dixie Chicks hit "Cowboy Take Me Away." Today, the Robisons live on a ranch (which has been in Charlie's family for 150 years) just west of San Antonio with their 2-year-old son, Gus. When Emily isn't busy selling out stadiums and taking on the country-music establishment and when Charlie isn't busy releasing and touring behind great alt-country/Americana/roots-rock/whatever albums like the current Good Times, there's plenty of work to do back home.

"We raise cattle and quarter horses and produce about 2,400 bales of hay a year, so I'm either training horses or working cattle or cutting hay or patching a fence," Robison says when asked about a typical day on the ranch, something most of us only know about from watching Bonanza reruns. "If you can't find something to do on that ranch, you're not looking very hard."

You might think that his wife's recent high-profile run-in with country music's gatekeepers would color Robison's attitude about the country industry, and to a degree, you'd be right.

"I thought the fans definitely should have had a chance to make up their mind about things," Robison says. "Country radio really used that situation as a hot-button issue. I felt that the summary boycotting was pretty chickenshit. The industry and especially the labels are very timid, so it wasn't surprising to see people in Nashville not get behind them but to just bury their heads in the sand until it was all over. Then if they think they can make money with them after that, they'll be back. It all comes back to the money."

But as scion of a proud alternative tradition of Texas songwriters such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zant, and Terry Allen (whose "Flatland Boogie" is covered on Good Times), Robison has always had at least one foot outside of the Nashville scene. A purveyor of hard Texas country with conjunto and classic-rock flourishes, Robison's music feels so grounded in its world that you can almost taste the brisket and refried beans.

"Guy and Townes, I was a huge fan of theirs growing up, and they sort of took me under their wing about 15 years ago," Robison says. "It was kind of a drunken boot camp for songwriters.

"Nashville has always had great fans. Willie Nelson's always said that Nashville is the shop. Whether you're a trapper or make birdhouses or whatever, you've got to go someplace to sell your stuff, and Nashville just happens to be that place where you go to do business. I've been on three labels in Nashville and have always had a good relationship with people there, but it's hard to pigeonhole my music into country radio. I've never blamed anybody for not knowing what to do with a lot of my music. It's kind of up to me to get out there and present it in a different way, outside of mainstream country radio."

For Robison, this sometimes means hitting different audiences with different songs from his eclectic albums. The first single off Good Times was the hard-charging "New Year's Day," which appealed more to Americana radio stations. The next single is the softer "El Cerrito Place," with Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines providing background vocals. Robison hopes that that song can find a home on mainstream country and on CMT, which has been furnished with a video for the song.

Citing Bruce Springsteen as perhaps his biggest influence, Robison may be an honest-to-goodness cowboy, but between juggling a music career, a family, and a ranch, he's got no time to keep up with country trends or to worry about industry orthodoxy.

"I'm more likely to listen to my Willie Nelson or Bob Wills when I'm off on tour, but when I'm home at the ranch, I'm probably more likely to pop in some Tom Waits or Bob Marley," he says.

As a rancher unconcerned with keeping up images, Robison seems like the perfect person to ask about America's most recognizable Texas rancher.

"Actually, it's not a ranch if there's no cattle on it," Robison says when asked whether the clearing of brush is really a constant duty of any respectable ranch owner. Which puts a literal twist on the Texas phrase sometimes lobbed at our current rancher in chief: all hat, no cattle.

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