A Very Austin Christmas: The Making of a Texas Holiday Tradition [Part One]

Party Like It’s 1999

1999 - What a year. It was such a crazy busy time - our little family booked a gig just so we could see each other. Charlie and Emily had gotten married in May. To think, the year before in 1998 we had all released records too - Kelly with “What I Deserve,” my big brother Charlie had released “Life Of The Party,” I had released “Wrapped,” and The Dixie Chicks with “Wide Open Spaces.” I actually didn’t know this year was so important to our careers until I started writing this piece. As I was going through searching for photos and videos from that first show, I realized that in that one year we all released the work that would define our careers.

Kelly had left behind chasing Nashville charts and major labels and figured she would just record the songs she had already written before leaving music for good and doing something else. Well, that record was “What I Deserve” where she found her voice and her audience and ultimately would never be able to leave music after that point even though she’s tried a few times. Charlie’s “Life Of The Party” had the songs Bar Light, My Hometown, and Loving Country on it which made him a Texas music icon.

My record “Wrapped” had what would become Country radio hits for others - “Angry All The Time” eventually recorded by Tim McGraw & Faith Hill as well as “Wrapped” and “Desperately” both released by George Strait. And The Dixie Chicks? Well they were already remaking Country radio in their image even though they were just getting going. Oh, what might have been. Though we didn’t know it at the time, all those releases that came out in the calendar year of 1998 would change our lives.

It seemed a million miles from Bandera, Texas, but in 1999 our noses were to the grindstone. We were on the road all the time. No kids, no nothing. Somebody booked a gig for us to all get together, maybe Rusty Andrews from the Mucky Duck in Houston, in a little listening room that has been a home in Houston since the beginning and continues to be. To me and Kelly’s utter surprise, our new in-laws Emily Robison and Martie Maguire of The Dixie Chicks offered to play with us as a secret. It would end up being one of the hundreds of shows around the holidays that we would play, and was the start of something for Kelly and I that I still have a hard time believing. Life sure will do that to you.

 

Baby, It’s Cold Out There      

So we had this gig booked in Houston with our little family so we could all see each other. Charlie, Kelly and I, well, we never really rehearsed or practiced.  The Austin club world Charlie and I came up in was very organic and improvisational. You just didn’t figure Willie and Jerry Jeff practiced much so neither did you. But Martie and Emily were different! The minute they were on the show they called wanting the song list and rehearsal times. They were and are such pros - seeing them with Beyonce on TV at the CMA’s the other night I was really proud.

None of that happens by accident. In 1999, they were the same as now - complete pros. So when they called I told them, “Sure,” hung up, and figured we’d better get started finding some rehearsals and some songs.

Kelly remembers that Charlie decided we were NOT gonna do any dorky Christmas songs despite the December date of the show. He brought in a few bluegrass covers we could sprinkle in with our own tunes, things like Stanley Brothers, etc. This idea is something that has stuck with us all these years with us looking for lesser known holiday or winter themed tunes or otherwise just feels right for some other reason (there is SO much stuff out there). It’s led us to songs from Tom Petty, the Zombies, Roger Miller, Louvin Brothers, Charles Brown and many more that have continued to make the show feel just as cool as we could imagine!

     That first show in Houston was really so much fun! A part of what made that night so special was something that happened as an afterthought. As I recall, I had a Ray Charles CD that I was listening to that had a duet with Betty Carter of the old songbook classic Baby, It’s Cold Outside.

The structure and delivery of the tune just blew me away. We actually took some real time to learn it - there are a lot of lyrics and I learned some jazzy chords to be able to play it a little. We didn’t even know if we would play it, but we had gone so far as to bring a snare drum that Charlie could stir along on and after the show went so well we were called out for an encore. And that was when we performed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the first time. I’m sure Kelly and I were reading lyrics, but in our memory the crowd went nuts. We got offstage and Charlie commented “Wow, that was great!” so we did it again at the other show in Ft Worth and it was a show stopper again. I remember talking to some folks after the show and they asked me if I had written the song! That really surprised me, but I guess in 1999 not that many people knew about it. It has been recorded a million times since, but it was and continues to be a special thing for us. We even found some old photos from that night - man do we look young!

Years later a fan brought me a recording he had bootlegged from the Fort Worth show that first year. We certainly thought that would be the only Christmas shows we would ever do, but it didn’t quite turn out that way.

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A Tradition Was Born

       There are a million events trying to separate you from your hard earned dollars under the guise of good old fashioned holiday fun. I can’t remember if I was skeptical when Rusty asked us to reprise the Robison family Christmas the next year, but I personally have made it known that I feel like the last person on the planet to be part of an annual Christmas show.  If I am known for anything it is super sad Country songs - what I would see as the antithesis of the idealized fare that usually constitutes commercial holiday experience. Just not my bag. And yet, we agreed to do the Houston show again and I guess our agent at the time booked a few more around Texas. We grabbed our brother-in-law, John “Lunchmeat” Ludwick back from the first year, who has been with us every year since, and hit the road!

Thinking about what to do for a string of holiday shows made wonder where the songs would come from.  I think that second year we very much wanted an excuse to sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” again. We wanted to try to avoid beating fans over the head with the same five Christmas songs you seem to hear everywhere you go, something we’ve maintained throughout the years pulling inspiration from many different places.

I had done a tour with a wonderful songwriter and poet from Knoxville named RB Morris, just us two in a van for a month, and what I remembered most is a song he would play every night called A Winter’s Tale. He’s one of those songwriters that’s really a poet in their own right, and I knew I wanted to include this song in our set - a beautiful image of the holidays.

I don’t remember too much about that year, but we cobbled together a show Kelly and I, and a tradition for us was born. In January of 2001, our first child was born, and somehow something began to slowly make sense to me. My family’s holidays, like many in the 70’s that weathered horrible divorces and multiple awkward and forced holidays, I found that I had no holiday traditions. As the new millennium started, by total accident, Kelly and I started our own tradition of family, music, and the holidays.