Songwriter Bruce Robison discusses communication through verse
Bruce Robison said he never imagined he’d write a song that would be at the center of so much controversy. The author of several songs performed by the Dixie Chicks and others, visited Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations Senior Lecturer Dave Junker’s “Pop Music as Social Advocacy” class last spring to discuss the role musicians take when their art becomes advocacy, whether or not it was the intended message. The course highlights the diverse and thought-provoking curriculum available to students within the Moody College of Communication.
Robison, whose brother Charlie was married to Emily Erwin Robison of the Dixie Chicks until 2008, said he was shocked by the circumstances that led to the end of the best-selling female group in U.S. history, all beginning with the chicks’ cover of his song “Travelin’ Soldier.”
"When I was a kid I understood Jane Fonda was seen as a lightning rod,”said Robison. “It was a hard thing for me to see my family go through the same thing and be treated as a sort of disembodied political symbol when you know them as people.”
Robison said he was originally inspired to write the ballad when a friend and dishwasher he worked with at a restaurant was deployed to the Gulf War in 1990 but that Robison never meant to have any political annotations connected to the piece.
“He was really a dorky guy and he shaved these rows in his eyebrows like Vanilla Ice,” said Robison. “I’m not sure I really had a position on the war one way or the other but he was going over there—this knuckleheaded friend of mine—and I was afraid he was going to get killed.”
Though often associated with the politics surrounding the 2003 invasion, the song was written during the first U.S. conflict in Iraq and is a tale about a young American soldier who meets a high school girl during the Vietnam War and corresponds with her overseas.
Years after it was authored, the Dixie Chicks chose to cover the piece. In 2003, “Travelin’ Soldier” became a U.S. Hot Country Songs number-one hit and was the group’s sixth single to reach the top until lead singer Natalie Maines made a comment in London a few days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In her introduction, Maines told the audience the band was ashamed that President George W. Bush was from Texas and the group didn’t support the war. Her words led hundreds of radio stations to boycott the song from their playlists either by record company edict or public pressure. The song subsequently fell to third the next week only to plummet from the charts entirely the following week.
The backlash from Maines’ comments originated mostly from the public, leading to several hundred death threats, hate mail and calls of protest. Ultimately, it led to the demise of the band in the eyes of country fans, forcing the trio to rebrand as a rock ensemble with the release of their last album in 2006. Following sales of more than 28 million copies of their first three records in the group’s initial five years, the Dixie Chicks never recovered their popularity after what is commonly referred to as “the Incident.”
“I didn’t know the girls as political at all up to that point but once that started they were so firmly in the middle of it all,” said Robison. “The takeaway—and it’s just like it is today—is to recognize that people on the fringes and in the media will use a situation like that to advance their agendas, whatever side they happen to support.”
Robison also penned two other number-one country hits including “Wrapped,” performed by George Strait, and “Angry All the Time,” performed by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
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