Texas country singer-songwriter Charlie Robison, who represented the Red Dirt sound and resisted the conventions of Nashville’s music scene, died over the weekend at 59.
Robison died Sunday at a hospital in San Antonio after cardiac arrest and other complications, a family representative told the Associated Press. Complications from a previous medical procedure had forced the “My Hometown” singer to give up performing in 2018, but earlier this year he was in the midst of a comeback, playing shows across his home state.
“It is with a heavy heart that I share the news that my husband, Charlie Robison has passed away today, surrounded by his family and friends,” wrote his wife, Kristen Robinson, in a Facebook post Sunday. “My heart is broken. Please pray for me, our children and our family,” she continued.
Robison also is survived by ex-wife Emily Strayer, founding member of country supergroup The Chicks, with whom he had three children before their divorce in 2008. The Chicks had announced Saturday that they had moved their concert date in Winnipeg from Tuesday to Monday, citing “an urgent family matter.”
Growing up on his family’s ranch in the Texas county of Bandera, after which he would name his debut album in 1996, Robison was surrounded by a mosaic of sounds: honky-tonk blasting on the radio, live shows from local country and Mexican folk bands, and traditional dances to polka music with his family, which traced their roots to Germany. He also drew inspiration from other Red Dirt and Outlaw country music stars, notably singer-songwriters Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett.
After his grandmother bought him a drum set while he was in junior high, Robison formed a band with his brother, Bruce Robison, he told Australian radio show “Casey Radio” in 2012. Bruce also went on to become a singer-songwriter.
Robison launched his music career in the late 1980s, playing in local Austin bands like Two Hoots and a Holler before forming Millionaire Playboys. When he was approached by Sony in 1998, Robison signed with its Lucky Dog imprint, which was devoted to rawer country. He later signed with Columbia Records. Despite the mainstream signings, Robison rebuffed Nashville’s country scene.
During a Nashville radio event in 1999, Robison told a ballroom full of influential radio programmers to shut up during his performance and said, “I’m the greatest thing you’re ever going to see, but you probably won’t play me because you’re too f— stupid,” according to the Austin Chronicle.
“I’m not saying I hate country or even Nashville,” he told the Chronicle for a 2001 profile. “It’s just that I’d love for everybody to sit together and say, ‘We can make better music here.’ We should try and raise the bar a bit, myself included.”
However, Robison was as much a part of the Nashville scene as he was a critic of it. He’d remain in mainstream industry circles while married to Strayer, during the peak of The Chicks’ fame. And his 2001 album, “Step Right Up,” produced Top 40 country hit “I Want You Bad,” an upbeat love ballad that departs from his earlier, earthier anthems.
“It should be pretty obvious that if I wasn’t trying to make a run at radio, this song wouldn’t have been on the album,” he said, referring to the hit single. “It’s up to you to decide whether that’s selling out or not, but I did it not to get in Nashville’s good graces. I did it to get my other songs heard.”
Robinson dug in his boots further in Nashville as a judge on the inaugural season of USA Network’s reality competition show “Nashville Star,” in which contestants live together while competing for a country music recording contract. However, he left after the first season in 2003.
A year later, Robison left Columbia for the smaller indie label Dualtones. While there, he produced two of his most memorable albums, “Good Times” and “Beautiful Day,” the latter of which he wrote and recorded while going through his divorce from Strayer, drawing on themes of heartbreak, loss and grief.
In a 2014 interview with “The Texas Music Scene” TV series, which called Robison an artist “that walks to his own beat and makes no apologies for it,” the Texas native said he had moved on from such heavier topics for his 2013 album, “High Life,” instead wanting to “just have fun and play some fun music that I like.”
Several years later, in September 2018, Robison unexpectedly announced his retirement and cited complications from a surgery that had “left me with the permanent inability to sing.” His fans were stunned by the announcement, among them Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos, the editor of SavingCountryMusic.com. “The sound of Charlie Robison is the sound of Texas,” Coroneos wrote in response to the retirement announcement.
“The songs of Charlie Robison place you in the shoes of the characters — you feel their pain, and share in their sorrows. It’s eerie how the songs seem to be shaped to your life,” Coroneos continued. After Robison’s death, he called it “the end of an era in Texas music.”
Robison returned this year to the stage, performing at small shows and music festivals across Texas, with appearances even slated for 2024. His last known performance was July 14 at John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, Texas.
“It’s been an amazing ride and I cannot tell you all what the last 25 years has meant to me,” the singer wrote in 2018 when announcing his retirement. “I was looking forward to another 25 but as they say ‘s— happens.’ I thank you all for everything you’ve given me and I hope I was able to give you a fraction of the happiness you gave me. It was a hell of a ride but as they say all good things must end.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.