Charlie Robison could talk your dumb ass into just about anything, or at least he always could mine. Like the summer night in 2001 when he called just before 11 p.m., giving a thirty-minute heads-up that I was to tag along on a five-hour drive from Austin to a movie set on the far side of Snyder—“Dude,” he said, “I got two words for you: moviestars and freebeer”—only to inform me as we filled his old, beat-to-hell Suburban with gas on the way out of town that he was going to sleep while I did the driving. “My scene tomorrow has a lot of close-ups,” he said, “and I just can’t look like I’ve been driving all night.” Okay, Charlie.

Eight years earlier, there was the six-day midnight run we made to the Grand Canyon following last call at a West Austin dive bar. “Dude,” he said, “Jack Kerouac would be all over this s—t. Let’s hit it.”

But even that wasn’t the dumbest thing we did in the second half of 1993. Two months later, I was working an internship on the Texas Monthly edit staff. The position was unpaid, but the perks unreal, the most golden being a freebie press junket at Dallas’s fabled Longhorn Ballroom, where Asleep at the Wheel was celebrating the release of its first Bob Wills tribute album. My invite came with a plus-one, and Charlie, who’d played a few DFW shows with his first band, the Millionaire Playboys, was the exact right person to take. He knew the ropes. And he’d bring that unmistakable Charlie gravitas.

The night was remarkable. I interviewed Ray Benson on his bus! I shook seventies country star Johnny Rodriguez’s hand! I got Wills’s old guitarist Eldon Shamblin’s autograph! And I learned a great deal about the music biz from Charlie. These were key lessons, like the fact that the bottles of whiskey in the hospitality-room bar were actually parting gifts for music critics at night’s end. And the limo out back of the concert hall? That was waiting to take VIPs wherever they wanted to go, and since we were carrying a practically full whiskey bottle, we clearly qualified. As we crawled into the back seat—and I swear this happened; there are only true Charlie Robison stories—the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” was playing on the radio. Charlie instructed the driver to turn up the music and take us to Dealey Plaza. Apparently, Charlie the history buff had always wanted to see the JFK assassination site at three in the morning.

We deboarded across the street from the Texas School Book Depository, walked down to the grassy knoll, then turned and looked at the old motorcade route. Charlie pointed to our left. “So, if Umbrella Man’s over there . . . ” he paused, jogged up the hill to the pergola, stepped behind the low wall stretching toward Houston Street, and pointed down to Elm Street, “ . . . and Kennedy’s Lincoln was right around there. . . . ” He paused again, then stabbed at the air with his finger. “Dude, go stand right there,” he said. “In the road. Nearest lane.” Given the historical significance of the locale, and the fact there no one was driving at that hour, it simply made too much sense. I did as instructed.

“See?” he yelled down, still pointing. “Straight shot. With an easy escape route behind me. No way Oswald acted alone.” He sprinted down the hill and joined me, then insisted we lay in the middle of Elm and look back up. Okay, Charlie. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “Jack’s-eye view, baby. Right here. Texas history, American history, the whole thing.” He turned his head and looked at me. “Where’d you put the whiskey?”

Charlie (right), with siblings Bruce, Mimi, and Robyn, in 1984.
Charlie (right), with siblings Bruce, Mimi, and Robyn, in 1984.Courtesy of the Robison family

I can’t remember the first time I met Charlie, who died September 10 in San Antonio at 59 years old. But I know exactly what it felt like, because it felt that way pretty much every time I saw him. It could have been a post-show welcome to the back of his tour bus after he hit it big. Or, years earlier, when he’d call to the bartender from the stage at the Continental Club, “Hey Celeste, can I get a tequila to the bandstand, and Lone Stars for Spong and Cheetoh?”—welcome surprises for me and my roommate, Dave Courtney, now widely known as the Texanist. Or even earlier, before he’d ever played a show at the Continental, when he was just working the door, charging cover and running the soundboard. His magnetism was undeniable, his eyes a little bluer than everybody else’s, his smile a whole lot bigger. It was like the Mitch-and-Pink thing in Dazed and Confused, like we were transported back to high school. He was always the senior star quarterback, and some part of me always felt like a freshman invited to ride shotgun.

I got close with him and his quieter, cerebral, younger brother, Bruce, in 1991, when they were both dreaming of making their livings writing songs and I was in my second year of law school. “Formative” isn’t the right word to describe that period for any of us. A guy I’d grown up with, Chris Kern, would have made the introduction. Chris was the hub for a bunch of Austin cool kids, which included his own former frat brothers, like Dave; this loose collection of singer-songwriters coalescing into the new, alt-country scene; and seemingly every pretty girl in town, who’d come to those shows specifically to dance with him. But on a bike ride that September, Chris was killed by a drunk driver. That night, a hundred grieving twenty-somethings filled up the house he rented in Clarksville, where his music buddies set up in the corner of his living room and played all night.

It was a lineup that would have later made a great Austin City Limits episode: Kelly Willis, Monte Warden, Jeff Hughes from Chaparral, and Bruce and Charlie, who were by far the least-established artists on hand. I remember at one point the Robisons were on guitars backing Monte, who was playing a self-penned gospel song that none of us had heard before, “He’s Not Just My Savior, He’s My Friend.” At the end of each verse, he’d shout over his shoulder, “Okay, boys, modulate up, one half-step!” Bruce and Charlie shot panicked glances at each other like they were about to fly out of the bed of a pickup truck.

The wake lasted well past the next morning. It was the first time many—or maybe any—of us had experienced a close friend’s sudden, tragic death, and we didn’t know any way to deal with it except to be together. But if Chris was the connection, music was the expression. We had a dinner party every Tuesday night at Hughes’s father-in-law’s house, the crowds ranging from five to fifty people, with guitars pulled out once the table was cleared. Every Wednesday we’d go to the Continental to hear the Weepers, an acoustic trio built on tight, three-part harmonies by Bruce, Charlie, and their future brother-in-law, bassist John Ludwick. (Note that their self-consciously mournful setlist prompted the finest men’s-room graffiti tag I’ve ever seen: “Finders keepers, Weepers losers.”) Then on Thursday through Sunday nights, we’d go see bands led by one or another of the bereaved. It was like The Big Chill’s funeral-born reunion if it had played out over five years instead of one long weekend.

Bruce and Charlie were at the heart of that scene. Many of us had grown up in Austin, but the Robisons had moved to town from Bandera, and I remember realizing early that the musical taste of the two dudes from the sticks was more wide-ranging and refined than most of ours—certainly more than my own. I’d subsisted in the late eighties on a strict diet of radio country, lots of George Strait and Dwight Yoakam. Bruce and Charlie knew that stuff inside out, but when we listened together—over dinner, over drinks, backstage after a show, in the car on a road trip—they’d pull the focus to the songs, then put on a record I hadn’t heard before. Doug Sahm and Band. NRBQ’s At Yankee Stadium. John Hiatt’s Bring the Family. I started sensing that Bruce and Charlie had grown up with something going on inside of them that they refused to let Bandera confine.

We spent a lot of time putting dollars in the jukebox at the Deep Eddy Cabaret, and I’d pay close attention to the tracks they picked, which were almost never the songs that made it to the radio. One night, one of them punched up “Last to Know,” off Alejandro Escovedo’s then-new album, Gravity. It’s an eloquent, floating ballad about life as a road-warrior touring musician, and it was destined to become a cornerstone of Escovedo’s esteemed canon. The chorus grabbed me instantly, “More miles than money, look at our lives and it’s so funny . . . ”

About halfway through, one of the Robisons—and it had to be Bruce; Charlie was always cool, but never this cagey—said, “We sang the harmonies on this. Alejandro said he liked the way our voices blend.” It was a huge moment, the first time either had sang on a commercial release, maybe even their first time in a real recording studio. Neither’s expression betrayed the pride they were feeling, but it was there in the bar with us. And their voices on the jukebox were seamless and beautiful.

Bruce and Charlie with their dad, Gerald, October 1996.
Bruce and Charlie with their dad, Gerald, October 1996.Courtesy of the Robison family

They each put out their first CD in 1995, and though neither record made big waves beyond glowing reviews locally and in No Depression, both pointed to the success that would eventually come. Bruce’s self-titled album featured two early compositions, “Angry All the Time” and “Travelin’ Soldier,” that would go on to be number-one country singles for Tim McGraw and the Chicks, respectively. Charlie’s, which he called Bandera and dedicated to Chris, presented him as a fully formed, bad-boy heartthrob, posing on the cover with a conspicuous cigarette in hand and a too-cool-for-school distance in his eyes. My favorite songs were the subtler, quirky ones, like “Good Neighbor,” which had a verse about JFK’s ghost raking leaves and another reimagining the Last Supper as a Chinese food buffet. (“When Jesus read his cookie, it said, ‘Stay at home today.’ ”) But it was two other tracks—his honky-tonk nursery rhyme “Barlight” and the bank-heist road song “Desperate Times”—that indicated where Charlie was headed: straight to raise-your-longneck-and-sing-along anthem land.

He would cement his place there with his second album, Life of the Party, in 1998. Friends had been joking for years that Charlie considered himself a big star well before the rest of the world was clued in. But with Life of the Party, his life started looking like his dreams. The record was released by a boutique imprint of Sony Nashville, Lucky Dog Records, and Sony was talking about giving him a major-label push. He’d begun dating his eventual first wife, Emily Erwin of the Chicks, whose recently released Wide Open Spaces was a generation-defining album, one that would propel the band to become the best-selling country group in history. Charlie’s songwriting had made leaps as well, lyrically blending his familiar self-mythologizing with an unmissable affection for where he’d come from. On “Sunset Boulevard,” when he winked at the emptiness of fame, singing “I wish that the Enquirer would spread a rumor that I was gay,” old friends knew that he was, in fact, supremely comfortable with any and all headlines that came his way. But to my ear, the song’s great line was in the last run through the chorus, when he changed the reference to his desired brass rings—“I’d spend all my money on caviar and cocaine”—to “caviar and Rogaine.” In quiet moments, Charlie acknowledged he was in on the joke.

The song that took him over the top, though, was “My Hometown.” In that one, he glorified the mundanities that had gotten him out of Bandera, tipping his hat to the lofty places he’d gone since. But then, at the end of each chorus, he emphasized that he’d ultimately wound up where he belonged, which was back home. “I’ll see you around, around my hometown.”

The song struck a chord with small-towners all over Texas, as I’d learn. In 2003, designer T.J. Tucker joined the art department at Texas Monthly. He’d come to the magazine from Texas Tech after growing up in the tiny ranching town of Baird (population: 1,500), about 20 miles east of Abilene. When he realized I knew Charlie, he freaked out. “Man, I don’t think you know how much that song meant to us as kids and in college,” T.J. said. “That song was about us.”

By that point I didn’t see or hear as much from Charlie, who was running in the rarefied air of celebrity. But every now and then, the Charlie I used to run with would place a weird call. One afternoon, the day after he’d attended the Grammy awards with Emily, he phoned out of the blue to report, in a most giddy tone, “Last night, I went to the men’s room and peed between Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. And guess who was waiting for them when I walked out? F—ing Anne Bancroft. Coo coo ca-choo, dude!” It reminded me of the great line in Bruce’s song about him and Charlie, “My Brother and Me”: “Take the boy out of Bandera, not the other way around.”

When I heard that Charlie died, I touched base with his heartbroken baby sister Robyn, then dug up that old Grand Canyon road trip piece. I remembered two anecdotes I’d left out of the story, which was supposed to be funny, because they didn’t quite fit. The first occurred early on, just as we turned onto U.S. 290 West outside Austin. I’d taken the bar exam the month before and was talking about a litigation job I’d lined up for the turn of the year. Charlie shrugged. “I always figured you’d be a writer,” he’d said. “That’s just what I’ve always seen you doing.” Okay, Charlie.

The other was something that happened repeatedly on the trip, almost on the hour. When I was driving—which was most of the time—he’d unfold our roadmap, spread it out on the dashboard, and fall silent while he studied it. When we made it into our motel room each night, the first thing he’d do was open it on the bed and study it some more. I remember wondering if that was a small-town thing. Or if something was always pushing him to find somewhere else to be.

But when I asked about the fascination, all he had to say was, “I don’t know. I’ve just always loved maps, ever since I was a little kid.”