The Last Waltz was a momentous, one-time collaboration, but that event eventually led to Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble recording sessions — and both helped inspire The Next Waltz, a new web series and multiplatform music delivery concept created by renowned Austin singer-songwriter and producer Bruce Robison. Featuring top country talents telling their stories and recording new musical chapters with handpicked session players, The Next Waltz references a beloved moment in musical history while presenting a forward-thinking vision of audience engagement.
Launching June 17, 2016 with Jerry Jeff Walker, The Next Waltz takes viewers and listeners inside Robison’s Lockhart, Texas, studio for interviews and recording sessions with veteran artists such as Rodney Crowell and Jack Ingram, and up-and-comers including the Turnpike Troubadours and Sam Outlaw. The content, distributed via a dedicated website, YouTube, online media outlets, music-streaming services and social media, includes a newly recorded song; a recording-session music video; a “short biopic” of the artist discussing his or her work with Robison; podcasts and blogs offering more background and insight; “mixtape” playlists containing songs that inspired the artist or provide context for his or her work; and quick-peek social-media clips. The songs will be available to purchase via iTunes. (Sneak-preview Walker’s new recording of the Crowell-penned “Song for the Life” here.)
“We’re focusing on great songs, and what it means to make music without the BS and the hype and the tricks,” says Robison, whose credits include writing the No. 1 hits “Travelin’ Soldier” (Dixie Chicks), “Wrapped” (George Strait) and “Angry All the Time” (Tim McGraw), in addition to recording and performing solo and with his wife, Kelly Willis.
Content for each featured artist rolls out in three-week periods; supplemental content may include additional songs and videos from those artists or others invited to record at Bruce’s Country Bunker, an old-school analog studio where engineer James Vollentine creates master-quality recordings with 16 tracks and 2-inch tape, without a computer in sight. But video director Spencer Peeples uses state-of-the-art digital gear to capture these sessions, which he edits into gorgeous visual statements. Using both black-and-white and subdued color images while artfully incorporating blur, lens flare and other techniques, he gives a candid feel to these clips that enhances both words and music.
Though Robison calls himself “a fanboy,” his ability to engage artists on a peer-to-peer level allows him to draw out stories in a way most journalists can’t. As with Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, there’s a feel of just-hanging-out camaraderie. But Robison’s curiosity and quest for deeper insights produces some extraordinary moments, such as Crowell recounting when his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash, had to help him find a Jamaican resident who could arrange a dead-of-night flight to get a sick child to a hospital. “They’re happy that somebody asks them about their lives, not just their career,” Robison says. “We’re doing Seinfeld’s show, but we end up with this amazing new piece of music.”
That music is cut live in a relaxed setting that looks a bit like a paneled gameroom — except for the crystal chandelier providing a touch of elegance. Interviews are taped in the studio or on the rustic 5-acre property; Robison’s dog, Lucky, likes to wander into shots. “It’s all about just performing the song and seeing where it takes us,” says Robison, “and having great players in a real collaborative atmosphere. And then showing that to people.”
That’s the simple explanation; more specifically, the plan involves taking advantage of multiple music distribution methods to: Tell the greatest stories of country music through peer-to-peer conversation and collaboration; Create an online community of passionate country fans — not just fans of the music, but the culture; and make creating content and distributing music a fun, profitable and carefree process again for artists of all experience levels.
“I think this could be the new way people put out music,” Robison says. Instead of trying to hustle cash to record and release CDs independently (or via a label), he envisions artists using The Next Waltz to engage current fans and attract new ones, in tandem with sponsors who want to align their brands with quality music and appreciative audiences. (Robison even suggests that brand partnerships might evolve into a new label model.)
As for the session musicians, cream-of-the-crop regulars include fiddler Warren Hood (the Waybacks, the BoDeans) drummer Conrad Choucroun (Bob Schneider, NRBQ), keyboardist Trevor Nealon (the Band of Heathens), pedal steel player Geoff Queen (Hayes Carll, Robison and Willis), bassist Dominic Fisher (Wood & Wire), guitarist David Grissom (the Dixie Chicks, Bob Dylan), and backing vocalist Kelley Mickwee (the Trishas).
Citing L.A.’s Wrecking Crew, Muscle Shoals’ Swampers, Nashville’s A-Team, Stax’s Mar-Keys and Booker T. & the MG’s and Motown’s Funk Brothers, Robison intends to form Austin’s version of a history-worthy house band that carves out its own sound. (That is, after all, more or less how the Band evolved, though they started onstage.)
“In the ’50s, they tried to pair a great song with a great artist and a great band, and we’ve gotten away from that,” Robison notes, adding that his intent is not to idealize the past, but draw from it. That’s expressed perfectly in the simple Next Waltz tagline: “Where country music still lives.”