I grew up in Bandera, a place that has gotten more interesting to me as I grow older because it’s a small town that’s also pretty open-minded. It’s a place where people go to have a good time, so there have always been a lot of tourists and interesting people coming through, and I’m still mining my experiences there for my songwriting.
I started writing relatively late, about twelve or thirteen years ago. I had quit school, and had no idea of what I wanted to do. I wrote a couple of songs for the band I was singing harmony with, and that was when the doors started to open for me.
Once I found that songwriting was what I was good at, it didn’t matter that I worked ten years and never made a penny. I loved writing songs even when nobody else thought they were any good. I’d been so bad at all the other things I did—being a basketball player, a student, a fry cook, and all the other goofy jobs I had—I’d never realized what it felt like to enjoy your work. Calling yourself a songwriter for ten years and not making any money, well, there’s worse things you could do.
When Lee Ann Womack covered my song “Lonely Too,” it was the first time I made much money off one of my songs. It was on her hit record I Hope You Dance , which sold a couple million copies. I felt like I was finally doing something for my family. We didn’t have kids yet or anything, but Kelly [Willis] had always done all the heavy lifting for us up to that time. It was one of those watershed moments that’s really great. I can point to a few of them in my life, but that was a big one. I mean, I thought, “Twenty thousand dollars—I’ll never spend that much money! I’ll retire!”
Since that break, I’ve been really lucky with big artists covering my songs. I had a couple of number one hits with Tim McGraw and the Dixie Chicks, and hopefully the new George Strait one [“Desperately”] will do well. But of all the songs I’ve had any success with, “Travelin’ Soldier” has had the most interesting journey.
It was one of the first songs I ever wrote. I guess it was 1991 or so, right after the first Gulf War. At the time, the media was saying five thousand of our troops could be killed whenever we invaded and tried to throw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, which really upset me. I didn’t know how to even start to get my mind around five thousand people losing their lives.
I was working at a diner in Austin, and there was a kid there in the reserves who was getting called up to go, so I wrote a song to deal with these things that were going on in my head. I couldn’t write a song about five thousand people, so I wrote a song about one guy going off to war and not coming back, purposefully making him not the most popular guy on the block. I kicked it around for years, and put it on a couple of my albums. I remember playing it a thousand times for small crowds in smoky bars. No big deal, you know?
Then the Dixie Chicks recorded it on their album Home. Emily Robison is my sister-in-law, and they recorded the song without my even knowing they were looking at it. It was the third single off the record, went to number one, and was doing great until the girls got embroiled in that crazy media frenzy, which was just completely heartbreaking. Not for my song, but because I love the girls so bad and hated to see the way they were pummeled.
I have a joke in my show that “Travelin’ Soldier” is the fastest-descending number-one country single in the history of the Billboard charts, and I think that’s probably true. It was number one for one week, then three weeks later it was gone from the charts. Hell, I made a bunch of money off that, so no one should cry for me. But I do think that was the first situation that someone was silenced from the mass media in response to a political point of view.
I regretted it whenever I’d see Diane Sawyer or whoever it was at the time saying, “The country music public rose up in anger and silenced the Chicks,” because I don’t think that’s what happened at all. It was a small grassroots group that screamed loud and knew how to affect public policy. You can’t kill a song if there are two thousand different ownerships of radio, but if there are only three people who own the radio stations, then you damn well can do it.
Now I’ll go on the radio and the one thing that we won’t talk about is the Dixie Chicks. They’ll say off the mike, “If we do anything, then the phones are going to light up and the people will say, ‘What are you doing?’” So I just say, “All right, I guess we won’t bring that up.” And what kind of world is that? It’s craziness.
Bruce Robison, 37, has had his songs covered by the Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, George Strait, Kelly Willis, and Lee Ann Womack, among others. He lives in Austin with his wife, Kelly Willis, and their three children.