Last Man Standing

"Coulda been a saint and not a rank backslider": Singer Chip Robinson, foreground.
Mike Traister

You'll have to forgive Backsliders front man Chip Robinson if he sounds a bit tired and confused. It's not just because Robinson is phoning from a truck stop outside Provo, Utah, in the middle of a grueling, two-day drive from Texas to Oregon. The gravel-voiced singer has spent much of the last year in a kind of haze. In less than two years, Robinson has seen his band release a critical and commercially successful debut, Throwin' Rocks at the Moon, and complete a follow-up, only to have the group implode amid creative (as well as some reported personal) differences. While the group's label shelved the record for close to a year, Robinson struggled with whether to continue, finally putting the pieces back together to re-form the band, release the disc and tour behind it. That kind of turmoil is enough to put anyone in a fog.

Most of Robinson's songs are set somewhere along the dirt roads and trailer parks of North Carolina, yet the stories could happen anywhere. It's an element in his writing that's reminiscent of early Bruce Springsteen. Both men's songs are evocative of a particular time and place, but still manage to contain an uncommon universality.

Moreover, Robinson's work isn't encumbered by the post-punk irony that's featured prominently in so much of what's classified as alternative country music. Much like the characters in his songs, Robinson hasn't been able to afford the luxury of irony; it carries too steep a price when you're just struggling to keep things together.

In April 1998, Robinson returned to his Raleigh, North Carolina, home after several weeks in New York, where he was busy mixing the Backsliders' sophomore effort with producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel. He found that the group, which had been together in one form or another for seven years, had staged a mass defection. With co-founder Steve Howell's decision to split from the band, the rest of the group followed suit, leaving Robinson as the lone survivor in the unlikely scenario.

With a new record completed and ready to be released, the band's dissolution was especially hard for Robinson to take, leaving him confused and uncertain about the future. "I could have rolled over on this record probably and let the label do whatever and said, "The hell with it.' And I probably thought about doing that for about five minutes. I decided that it just wasn't what I wanted to do."

Instead, Robinson went to his label, North Carolina-based Mammoth, and asked executives what he needed to do to get the record out. "Basically I had to start all over, get a new band, management and a booking agent," recalls Robinson. "I went out and did a bunch of solo dates last summer, kept in touch with Roscoe, and he helped me put together a band from guys down around Raleigh."

The current road group consists of longtime guitarist Brad Rice, who returned to the fold shortly before the album's release, drummer Terry Anderson, keyboardist Rob Farris and bassist Roger Gumpton.

When the band's sophomore effort, Southern Lines, was finally released this past spring, it was met with the same critical success as the band's debut. Observers were quick to point out some major overall differences. Although the set retains one Howell composition and several of his co-writes, Southern Lines is clearly Robinson's baby. It has a distinctively harder edge than its predecessor. The album features less of Howell's sprite Bakersfield-influenced numbers, and more urgent rockers and sparse acoustic ruminations.

Much of the album's decidedly rock-oriented feel comes from Ambel, a former member of Joan Jett's Blackhearts and a much-sought-after alt-country producer whose credits include the Bottle Rockets and Go to Blazes. "We had talked to Roscoe about doing the Throwin' Rocks record before we talked to [the band's first producer] Pete Anderson, actually. We were big fans of a lot of the stuff he had worked on," recalls Robinson. "But then Pete called and we went with him on the first one. This time around the label kind of wanted to try a different producer, so Roscoe was obviously the guy."

While Ambel's production manages to leave the band's rougher edges intact (although the album's best track, "Abe Lincoln," features production work from former R.E.M. producer Don Dixon), Robinson's songs are the backbone of the record.

"Some of them were written just a month or so before we went and recorded, some of them have been around for a while," notes Robinson. In fact, the album is patched together with songs from a number of different periods in Robinson's career. "The Lonely One" appeared on a Backsliders single from the early '90s, while others have been in Robinson's catalogue since before the group even formed. Despite that, the record is a cohesive and often wrenching collection of first-person narratives that fit within a traditional country scope but are colored by a modern darkness.

During the Backsliders' previous incarnation, the group's alcohol-filled country romps and faithful shuffles tended to obscure the fact that Robinson is an uncommonly gifted songwriter. His ability to seamlessly change emotional gears is especially prevalent on the new album.

On "Don't Ask Me Why," Robinson assumes the role of defiant Southern miscreant as he goes to commit a crime while leaving his unwitting girlfriend behind, promising her, "See you later on tonight/Then I'm gonna set things right/Don't worry if they bring the heat/I've got a friend beneath my seat."

As unsettling as the born-to-lose bravado of Robinson's characters often is, his stark and frequently poetic emotional confessions, like the one found on "Burning Bed," are equally jarring. Against a gentle swell of acoustic guitar and Hammond organ, Robinson declares, "And then there's everything I see/When I look in your eyes/Shallow as your well might be/It still mystifies."

It's doubtful that Robinson's characters will ever develop a sense of self quite as sharp as his pen allows them, but it's his role as observer and chronicler of the daily hardships and tragedies of common life that makes the songs so compelling.

Thematically, Robinson's work primarily explores the twin emotional poles of regret and doubt. On "Angelita" he wonders how his "life fell between the cracks" and sings about a lover who's both literally and figuratively dead. "As I was standing right next to her dying bed/I shoulda kissed her 'fore she took her last breath," sings Robinson in a voice that sounds as if it were chipped from granite and wizened by years of hard living and disappointment. It's with a sense of absolute resignation that he adds the final salvo, "But I ain't ever been that bold."

The album's plaintive feel is enhanced by the contribution of several guest musicians, including former Buck Owens sideman Tom Brumley on steel guitar. "Roscoe had worked with him before, and we knew there was some stuff to put some pedal steel on, so he was immediately like, "We'll get Tom Brumley,' and we were like, "Way cool, man,'" says Robinson.

Former dB and Continental Drifter Peter Holsapple is another welcome guest who adds some gentle atmospheric touches on the title track (which is "hidden" at the end of the disc). Holsapple literally had to crawl to play on the song. "He played accordion and the bass pedals on an old Hammond B-3 they had in the studio. He actually played the bass pedals on his hands and knees through this old creaky Leslie cabinet," recalls Robinson. "You can hear the Leslie noise going. It's pretty cool." What results is a blissful ode (by way of a train song) to Robinson's Southern roots and the unchanging nature of the region and its people.

Despite last year's forced hiatus, the time off hasn't proved to be an especially fruitful period in terms of writing for Robinson. "I've had a pretty hectic year. I've only gotten a couple of things finished and a bunch of half-finished things."

"I don't know, I've gotten to the point where I'm just trying to write a song with a beat actually," says Robinson. "To me it seems like the ballads come real easy."

If there's one thing that sustains Robinson, it's the prospect of making another record, and hopefully under less chaotic circumstances. "Yeah, I sure hope we get to do another one. I'd like to be able to make a record with the guys I'm playing with now, but I'm not looking much past that."

The Backsliders are scheduled to perform on Saturday, July 31, at Balboa Cafe in Tempe. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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