NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the heyday of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, Charlie Robison would be a shoo-in for country music stardom.
Robison, 36, grew up poor in Texas. He was mentored by master songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. In their tradition, he writes songs with characters as finely etched as those in a Flannery O'Connor story.
He's tall and handsome. He's part of a burgeoning family musical dynasty; married to Dixie Chick Emily Robison, brother to songwriter Bruce Robison and brother-in-law to singer Kelly Willis.
He's a genuine cowboy who still works the ranch in Bandera, Texas, that's been in his family since the 1840s. He sells out clubs all over the country, especially in the Southwest.
"We'll sell out a place, and the owner tells me that a week before a country musician with a Top 10 hit had come in and sold a hundred tickets," Robison said. "So you don't get angry, you don't feel like you're missing out on anything. You're doing better than people who are having all the success on the radio."
His labelmate Billy Gilman isn't a teenager yet, and mushy ballads about perfect love have pushed the realism of Kris Kristofferson aside.
Can Robison buck those trends?
"I'm the right man for the job," he drawls on the opening song of "Step Right Up," his third album, and second for Sony.
The fellow in the song is actually bragging about his prowess with the ladies. He's one of several characters who strut, flounder and persevere in Robison's songs.
The guy in "Desperate Times" goes from bored kid to soldier to police officer to bank robber to prisoner in just under six minutes. In "One in a Million," a slacker comes up with excuses for messing up that begin at ridiculous and spiral from there. By the end, he's claiming he was abducted by aliens.
"The Wedding Song" is a duet with Dixie Chick Natalie Maines. It's not your typical Tim McGraw-Faith Hill gooey love song: "When I said I do/Well I slammed all the doors/To a future where I could see Paris in the spring/And I wasn't prepared for the weight of this ring/But we will get by, for the rest of our lives," Maines sings.
"I love Tim and Faith, and they are good friends of mine," Robison said. "But when they sing 'Let's Make Love' on the Eiffel Tower . . . the majority of people aren't going to be that.
"I'm kind of writing for everybody else, that has to do the barbecue in the back yard."
Meanwhile, McGraw is steering toward grittier Robison territory on his new album, "Set This Circus Down." Hill sings background on McGraw's version of the anguished "Angry All the Time," written by Bruce Robison.
A sign of things to come?
"When Nirvana came out, people felt disenfranchised and music didn't really speak to them anymore," Robison said. "I kind of feel that's the way people are feeling right now."
Due to the strong push he's getting from Sony, Robison finds himself today's poster boy for roots-music aficionados hoping that a rawer country music sound will re-emerge on the radio. Last year the great hope was Allison Moorer and her fine album "The Hardest Part."
Like others before her, radio stations passed on it.
"I really don't feel like the guy in front of the cavalry holding the flag," he said. "I definitely think (radio is) going to be open to a lot more stuff right now then they would have a few years ago, when there was definitely a formula that was working. There's definitely NOT a formula that's working right now."
Robison grew up in Bandera, outside of San Antonio. His father was a rancher and schoolteacher.
"We were very poor growing up," he recalls. "We were land rich, but very poor. It was a 14-hour day, for not much money."
He formed bands with his brother from the time they were teen-agers. He went to Southwest Texas State University on football and baseball scholarships, but quit after three years when a knee injury knocked him off the football team.
He moved to Austin to launch a music career, and played in bands like Two Hoots and a Holler before forming his own Millionaire Playboys.
"Guy Clark kind of took me under his wing," Robison said. "Guy and Townes (Van Zandt) both. They taught me how to write. They taught me how to drink. They taught me a lot of things — to keep fighting the good fight. ... These guys wrote real songs."
His first album, "Bandera," was released in 1996.
That caught the ear of Warner Bros. executives in Nashville, who signed him to a contract. The album he recorded for the company has never been released.
"I've just never been more miserable in my life," Robison said. "We had a big falling out about what songs were commercial. ... In hindsight it just really took the pressure off me. I was like, 'I'm just going to do what I do, and let things happen.'
"And it's worked out perfectly for me since then."
When he was approached by Sony in 1998, Robison signed with its Lucky Dog imprint, which is devoted to rawer country. With "Step Right Up," Sony officials are determined to get him on the radio.
"People have asked what I would choose between having an artistic career and a commercial career," Robison said. "I've always been the guy who said, 'Why can't I have both?'
"I really don't feel like you have to pick between those two. That, to me, is having faith in the audience."