While a cult figure in the mainstream country music world, his influence throughout his native Texas and on the Red Dirt scene was undeniable. Robison’s 1998 album Life of the Party is a touchstone for Texas artists and was a ubiquitous soundtrack across the Lone Star State in the late Nineties, earning him a reputation as a successor to Robert Earl Keen. Songs like “My Hometown,” about being unable to escape the pull of where you’re from, no matter how hard you try — “Gonna pack my bags a little heavy/This time gonna head my ass back home,” he sang — endeared him to both his peers and the college crowd.
Robison was raised in the Texas hill country in Bandera, where he played college football until he was sidelined by an injury. With the gridiron out of the picture, he decamped for Austin in the Eighties and embarked on a music career. He titled his first album, 1996’s Bandera, after his hometown and followed it up two years later with Life of the Party, which contained the favorites “My Hometown” and “Loving County.” In 2001, he released his major label debut, Step Right Up, on Columbia and scored his only Top 40 country single with “I Want You So Bad.” He released his final album, High Life, in 2013.
But it’s 2004’s Good Times that features what is arguably Robison’s artistic high-water mark: his recording of “El Cerrito Place.” Written by Keith Gattis, who died in April, the mournful ballad tracks a man’s descent into despair after his woman leaves him. Robison’s music video for the song was equally forlorn, with the singer — in a suit and holding a lit cigarette — wading barefoot into the Pacific Ocean, as if to say, “I’ve had enough.” Kenny Chesney would later cover “El Cerrito Place” in 2012.
Robison had familial ties, both by blood and marriage, throughout the music industry. His younger brother is the musician and producer Bruce Robison, and in 1998 Charlie Robison married Emily Erwin (now Strayer) of the Chicks. Their romance inspired one of the Chicks’ biggest songs, “Cowboy Take Me Away,” and they had three children together but ultimately divorced in 2008. (On Saturday, the Chicks announced they were moving a show scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 12, in Canada to Monday, “due to an urgent family matter.”)
In 2018, Robison surprised fans and the Red Dirt community when he announced that he was retiring from music after an undisclosed surgical procedure on his throat left him unable to ever sing again. “With a very heavy heart I am officially retiring from the stage and studio,” he wrote. “It’s been an amazing ride and I cannot tell you all what the last 25 years has meant to me. I was looking forward to another 25 but as they say ‘shit happens.’”
Additional reporting by Josh Crutchmer