Tony Kamel, Bruce Robison And The ‘Next’ Big Thing From Texas
Five years ago, a new series popped up on YouTube that felt more sincere, intimate and musical than most. In the welcome video, we see veteran songwriter and artist Bruce Robison telling his story and describing a vision taking shape in a studio he’d built in Lockhart, TX. The name of this new thing, whatever it was, drew on The Band’s famous final concert and a notion of transplanting the rambling, soulful spirit of Levon Helm to Texas - The Next Waltz.
As the videos rolled out under the new logo, we got a candid visit with Robison’s wife, the exceptional artist Kelly Willis. Then it was Jerry Jeff Walker in conversation, then a gritty film of the Turnpike Troubadours singing “Come As You Are,” then studio sessions with Jack Ingram, Randy Rogers and Sam Outlaw. The Next Waltz became a steady stream of understated, analog songcraft from a range of artists that tells the story of contemporary Texas country music better than anything since Austin City Limits.
It’s worth noticing that first Next Waltz intro video came within days of Bruce Robison’s fiftieth birthday. It’s a time when many people reassess and retool what they do and how they do it. And Robison tells WMOT that indeed, he had been feeling restless. “I was looking for a new challenge,” he said, noting the demise of his staff songwriting days - so fruitful in the 2000s when some of his best songs, “Travelin’ Soldier,” “Angry All The Time” and “Wrapped” became country chart-toppers. The music business was transforming every five minutes it seemed. “All of those things together started this process to what the Next Waltz has evolved into. But then again, it’s had many changes along the way.”
Most recently, the Next Waltz has come into focus as a label with the release of its first full-length album by a solo artist. Singer songwriter Tony Kamel has taken a side-journey from his long-running Austin bluegrass band Wood & Wire to write and record Back Down Home, a collection of ten cozy, ruminative country songs largely about the vibe and characters of the Texas gulf coast near Galveston, where Kamel has always spent a lot of time. Something about this synergy feels important. We have a fine songwriter whose voice (which could be said to be woody and wiry) deserves a platform. And we have an evolving project and company helmed by a stalwart of Americana bringing a holistic vision to a part of the country rich in talent and live music but historically sparse on the business side.
“I think the best way to describe the Next Waltz (is that) Bruce wants to reinvigorate this thing that old records had,” Kamel says. “He built a studio in Lockhart. It's all analog. There's no computers. He's got some really nice vintage gear and some great sound engineers that know how to run it. I think the whole idea is really to create records the way they used to be created, in that you’re mostly playing live and playing together and capturing full performances, being more open to leaving little idiosyncrasies within the takes, if they feel really good.”
Tony Kamel “sings the way I wish I could, and so that that made an impact on me a few years ago,” Robison says. “And then he had the songs.” Robison cites “Who Am I Kidding?” in which a songwriter wrestles with the uncertainties of his chosen life and ponders hanging it up for a day job, something Kamel says comes right out of his daily ruminations. “This River” caught his attention too, with a similar theme, about sacrifices on the family front of the road musician’s life. And Robison singled out “Slow On The Gulf” early on in the project as a lodestar.
It’s a gem, that one. Track two on the album, it starts with a gentle thump from a bass drum, slinky pedal steel and rolling fingerstyle guitar. The verses, about a guy seeking comfort and stability by moving back home, are straightforward blues, but the chorus takes a nice unpredictable bounce and the bridge heads out even farther into harmonic waters, showing some real craft and giving the soloists interesting terrain in which to improvise.
“I wrote that song six years ago with Bill Whitbeck (veteran of Robert Earl Keen’s band and the bass player here),” Kamel says. “That was Bruce's first one where his eyes sort of lit up. And he was like, I don't know what this is. But I really like it. It's different.” It took time in the Lockhart studio, called The Bunker, to dial in the tempo and the arrangement. And that’s exactly what Robison’s cultivating, a reliable roster of savvy side musicians mingling with talented singers and writers, evoking memories of the A-Team at Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut or the Swampers at Muscle Shoals Sound. By not renting somebody else’s space, the music can take place at a tempo that suits a Gulf Coast album.
Another one that unfolded in The Bunker was “Heat,” the funkiest and boldest track on Back Down Home. It’s also been on the shelf for some time, never quite finding its place in the all-acoustic setting of Wood & Wire. Kamel says it came out of a trip to a dance hall in Louisiana. His observations about their regional take on the two-step makes it into the chorus. But the real signature here is the horn section. “There would be no horns on this record if it weren't for Bruce. That was his idea,” Kamel says. “I wasn't sure about it. But we overdubbed the horns, and I was like, man, I'm into this.”
All this said, Kamel credits Robison with being a laid-back producer, one who sees his chief goal as identifying great songs and setting a mood in his studio with players he trusts. He is, the artist says, also good and decisive about spotting the takes that stand out and that need to be released. “He's just looking for this feeling,” says Kamel. “Most of the time, we linked up on whatever we thought it was the right take. Every now and then I’d take one or two more, and I couldn't beat it.”
There is nothing novel or innovative going on here, as Robison is quick to concede. The analog tape machines and microphones are tried and true. Groovy studios are central to music history. But roots music truly lives when inspired musical people operate with a sense of place, story and community. Texas songwriting culture has needed a multi-media outlet that’s indigenous, run by people with experience. Nobody could be better suited than Robison, one of the understated and I’d argue under-appreciated masters of Lone Star songwriting. His 2001 album Country Sunshine remains a classic of nuanced music in the vein of Don Williams. His 30-year marriage to Kelly Willis and their heartbreaking duet albums mark another kind of validation of his steadfast commitment to his values.
The Next Waltz took another step in the past year or so when Robison’s small team took on management duties for their friend, Texas artist Charley Crockett. That points to a future of TNW as more of an all-around music company. “That has been a really a big part of our story. Boy, he legitimized us,” Robison says. “He’s very ambitious, and he just moves real fast. He's like, totally current and from another era. So we have a hard time keeping up with Charlie, but he's just pushing us into new places.”
Kamel says Wood & Wire is not over but will tour more selectively at some point in the future. For now, he feels like a solo artist with a new batch of songs and a new label home that offers the imprimatur of Bruce Robison. And Robison will continue to let The Next Waltz evolve, with its eyes and heart on the same feeling that coaxed him and his brother Charlie to move to Austin decades ago, chasing that organic Texas music thing.
Watch out for my interviews with Kamel and Robison in an upcoming episode of The String from WMOT.