The Next Waltz is a song-focused, artist-driven music label melding 21st Century innovation with tried-and-true recording methods. Based out of songwriting icon Bruce Robison’s wonderfully analog studio, The Bunker, in Lockhart, TX, the label’s goal is to record the best songs with the greatest musicians while preserving the integrity of both. The Next Waltz has released two volumes since 2016, compilations that have included the Turnpike Troubadours, Hayes Carll, Jerry Jeff Walker, Carrie Rodriguez, Flatland Cavalry, and more performing songs recorded and realized within The Bunker. Taking a break from rehearsals for the Holiday Shindig (a 20-year tradition helmed by Bruce and his wife Kelly Willis that will be livestreamed this year due to COVID-19), Bruce Robison was able to share some history and some hopes for the future of the label. The Next Waltz Volume 3 will be available on Friday, November 27th, and is available for pre-order now!
AI- The concept of The Next Waltz, as the collection of songs and as the label, where did the inspiration originally start?
BR- Originally, puttin’ music out was so fraught with peril and so many times not very much fun that I started thinkin’ about a way to release singles or figure out another way that was takin’ advantage of the way people are now– on the internet and stuff– and seein’ if there was a more immediate way to do things. That was years ago, really, where I started tryin’ to think of somethin’ that I might be able to do in that way. When we started, it was just a simple singles label and then it morphed into a platform when we figured out we needed to have the video content and for a lot of different reasons. And then after that, it morphed back into a label with the content attached to it. So it’s been a long process that I still feel like we’re right in the middle of, but it’s really tryin’ to find a completely new way to release music and to work with artists. We’re just really makin’ it up as we go!
You talk about finding innovative ways to release music, but when it comes to creating that music, The Bunker itself, you’re doin’ 2-inch tape, 16 tracks– meat and potatoes.
Yeah. I’ve said that it’s the world’s most innovated record label for the world’s least innovative recording studio. The way we record, in just my opinion, it just historically is the best way to record this type of music, which is very simply. It’s just the sound of musicians goin’ down and collaborative. We’re all in a room, we’re on a bunch of gear from the ’70s, and all just playin’ music together. And if the song ain’t good, then it’ll show right away!
You’re in the middle of rehearsals now. I know that there have been recording sessions goin’ on and I’ve been anxious to talk to anybody about the studio and recording process during the pandemic. I’ve seen some images from The Bunker– folks all masked up, spaced out. What’s been the process so far? Do you have a standard that you’re requiring of everybody?
We’re just makin’ it up. The thinking there was that when we decided that part of our lives, our careers, and our business– playin’ the gigs– that was the main thing that feels unsafe still. After we figured out that that wasn’t coming back anytime soon, then it felt like this is something that we could try to do more safely. We have a lot more control, and we can deal with the group of musicians that we kinda know how they’re doing things. We can leave a lot of space for the artists. It’s a pretty big room. It was lookin’ at the things that we could do and decided that this might be something that we could do safely and still get some money into the musicians’ pockets when it became painfully clear that the gigs are not safe or profitable. So what’s the point?
All of the songs on this upcoming volume three of The Next Waltz were recorded at The Bunker. Were they all recorded specifically for volume three?
The volumes are the best of the year. We’ve done a lot of singles, but it’s just turned into a real thing for us. Figuring out what a new label looks like– people like that vinyl! And our music sounds really, really great on vinyl and we’ve gotten a more special package to go along with it. It’s just one of those things that we do in order to pay these musicians. After we did the first one, it just felt so good, and I loved the records. I just think that they’re so incredible and varied. Now, it’s just a fun thing that we do, and I think that they’re really amazing albums.
And you talk about variety! It’s the song selections! When you start diggin’ in and lookin’ at ’em, I want to know how all of that comes together. ‘Cause a Bob Wills tune seems like a given for something coming out of Texas called The Next Waltz. But some of the classic selections? Seriously, deep dives. Like you and Kelly and also Robert Ellis do some songs by the great Bobby Charles, who I love. You got Charley Crockett doin’ Billy Swan’s “I Can Help”– which by the way, my boss, the station manager, that’s his favorite thing right now. He can’t imagine that he’s lived his life without that so far. The Loudon Wainwright cover, “One Man Guy” [performed by David Ramirez], was very cool and unexpected. How does all that come together? Do they bring the songs or is there a process?
There is, and that’s probably been… I say it’s a challenge, but when I look back on it, it’s probably been a really good thing because the biggest challenge is when the artists, whether I know ’em very well or not– I’d never met David Ramirez before we did this– invariably they say, “What do y’all do? Is it just covers?” I try and make it clear that I want The Next Waltz just to be about great songs and wherever we have to go to find those. And it is kind of a process. I usually tell people to find something, whether it’s theirs or someone else’s, that is interesting and great to them and then maybe shows a side of them that people would not know. Because that’s what really fascinates me about this. ‘Cause even people that I know well, they have influences that I don’t understand at all. That’s what we try and tell the story of– all of these influence that come together to create these artists and who they are. Invariably, there’s surprises that I have no idea where they come from!
It ends up being different with every song, every person. Flatland [Cavalry] was in here yesterday and Cleto [Cordero] always brings in his own songs. He writes lots of songs. And then other people, they may not want to give me their very best new, original song. And I get that completely. So it ends up being all over the map. Kevin Russell, when he did the Rihanna song [“Bitch Better Have My Money”]… I had heard [Shinyribs] do that live, and I was like, “Buddy, you gotta get that down on tape! That’s incredible!” You could say that about all of those songs on the record, whether it’s “I Can Help” or Bobby Charles or the Rihanna song. There’s a thread in there of the varied influences. That really is the best thing about this area that I live in.
It’s not just classic songs, it’s newer cuts too. Cody Canada does one of Adam Wright’s new songs, “I Wonder if the World Can Wait That Long”. You’ve recorded some of Adam’s work before– and that’s a really a brand new song. Adam just put that one out. How did that one fall onto your plate?
I reached out to Adam because I just feel like he writes… I don’t know how to say it. He’s a time machine! He writes songs that I think that if it was 40 years ago, that my heroes would be recording! They’re so simple and they’re so beautiful and people just don’t write songs like that anymore. And he just writes them all the time! So I just pitch ’em all the time. Randy Rogers did an Adam Wright song on his last record [“I’ll Never Get Over You”] They didn’t use me for producer, they didn’t do anything, and that was one of the singles! I’m just pitchin’ Adam’s songs. I just think he’s brilliant. And the songs? They’re classic. They’re modern-day classics, and I don’t know how to put it any different. But it’s a hard thing. I’m not writing songs like that either! I don’t know why people don’t write songs like that, but they’re beautiful.
One of the challenges for any artist and one that you’ve talked about before is staying fresh and not repeating yourself. How has The Next Waltz factored into that for you specifically?
Well, thank you for asking that because many people, whenever they ask that, it seems to imply– and I would understand– that I’ve changed what I do when what I’m doin’ right now feels like what I was doin’ right when I was startin’ to write songs in the late ’80s. It was just wantin’ to be part of music and be part of creating something good. And writing songs was the only way I could envision it. I started goin’ to Nashville and started knockin’ on doors and that was where the excitement was. When I started thinkin’ about The Next Waltz, I had to admit to myself that I didn’t have that same excitement for songwriting that I did decades before. So this feels the same way. What we did yesterday in here with Flatland [Cavalry] felt like when I was knockin’ on doors in 1988 tryin’ to get my songs heard and tryin’ to get somebody to record them. To me, it feels exactly the same way. I really do think that I would be just as happy now to produce a song that somebody else wrote that became really successful as I would of writin’ one– especially with the way country radio is and gettin’ it cut in Nashville now. I think I’d be more excited to do it with a young artist, honestly.
You’ve had that experience in Nashville– having your music showcased to a much greater audience. Were you conscious of the fact that you were stepping into that mentor role with a lot of these artists when it comes to getting their music out?
Well, I’d like to, and it doesn’t fit super good when the years that I was really doin’ well, I wasn’t mentoring anybody. And I regret that time. I wasn’t helpin’ as much as I should. I really would love to do that, to be part of that. And even more so in the pandemic. Being part of this music scene and in a moment– these moments are all fleeting. To be part of the Austin scene and the Texas scene, and to be part of this stuff and to collaborate with these people, it’s just really an amazing thing. It feels like an honor for sure.
The Panhandlers marked their first full-length release, a wonderful, beautiful, layered album on The Next Waltz. I know that Dallas Burrow has been in and out doing some recording down there at The Bunker, and I’m really lookin’ forward to hearing that. I loved his last album, Southern Wind. I won’t ask you to comment on whether he will be an actual member of The Next Waltz roster, but as far as artists and the label itself, what’s that lookin’ like comin’ up in 2021?
The way it works is it actually kinda has the business model behind it. If you looked at a co-op– like a grain elevator where you have all the farmers around and whatever they do is what they put in– it really works like that. For The Panhandlers, it looked like the best place for them to have that project come to fruition and Dallas is really leanin’ on us, and there’s lots of other things that we’re doin’. Honestly, they’ll get out whatever they put in. I’m no genius, but people are bringin’ in amazin’ songs! Dallas’s record is gonna be really good!
I wish it was a time when we could just sign artists and they got signing bonuses and you could invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in them the way that occasionally happened back in the day. But it doesn’t exist anymore. This is a place where we can put resources behind an artist, just dependin’ on whatever they bring into it. That’s what we’re doin’. That was such a big deal when The Panhandlers came in and the vote of confidence when they said, “The Next Waltz is the right place for this to be produced and to be released.” I hope they think that I was doing something that deserved to be supported because that’s what they did. It’s like a frickin’ donation, you know? And then we can spread that around to other newer artists. That’s the way it’s workin’. It’s really a new thing and I’m just lovin’ it.
And what about you and Kelly? What’s on the horizon either collectively or individually?
We don’t know! Right now, we’re going to do our Christmas show, which is such a big part of our year. It’s been going on 22 years now, and we’re not going to be able to do it [live] for folks. We’re gonna tape a really– I hope– very cool thing out here at The Bunker and video it. We’ve got two really wonderful, special guests that we haven’t announced yet… We may add a third, but it’s really going to be a lot of fun. That’s a great question there, Aaron. Man, I don’t know what’s coming up! As everybody else that’s gonna be out there, it’s mostly about our kids and our families that we’re all thinking about– and that’s really all me and Kelly are worryin’ about right now. I’m hopin’ that we’ll be able to get back to playin’ some shows at some point. We don’t have a record in the plan or anything we, but we’ll be takin’ it as it comes, to quote my ol’ buddy, Jerry Jeff!
I’m glad you brought up Jerry Jeff [Walker] because I got one last question and it’s about him! Heartbroken is, I think, a word to use right now. But he appeared on the very first Next Waltz collection. I’m not sure where that sits as far as his last recordings went, but that’s something you’ve gotta be immensely proud of– to have him involved with this.
He’s probably my number hero, him and Willie [Nelson]. But if you look at any of this junk I’m doin’ out at The Bunker, it’s all just tryin’ to make somethin’ sound like Viva Terlingua and feel like that. He put me and Charlie [Robison, Bruce’s brother] in front of people when nobody would and will always continue to be an inspiration to me. There is no Austin the way that it is without him. Yeah, heartbroken is all I can say! He spent a lot of time with me, he supported this, and we did songs. We always had a lot of plans (laughs)! It was always fun to talk about stuff, ’cause he was always schemin’! He did his whole life and some of ’em were things that ended up changin’ the culture!