Studio Session: From the barbecue business to the recording studio, Tennessee bluesman Rob Robinson knows how to cook up soul
This week, Tennessee musician Rob Robinson joined Juliet Fromholt for a live interview and studio performance on Kaleidoscope. Robinson leads the soul band Heavy Drunk, which released its third studio album, You Don’t Know Me, in June. On the show, the songwriter performed an intimate set of songs from the new album on acoustic guitar. He also spoke with Juliet about returning to his first love, music, after a 13-year stint as the owner of a popular Tennessee barbecue restaurant. He says the new album is filled with energetic brass arrangements and humorous songwriting.
Rob Robinson said he’s been writing music his whole life. But in 2008, he took a break from his career as a touring musician to run Puckett's, a barbecue restaurant in Leiper’s Fork, TN. “I owned a barbecue restaurant and smoked about 700,000 pounds of barbecue,” He told Juliet. Puckets wasn't just home to smoked meats; the popular BBQ joint also frequently hosted music by Americana artists. Robinson said that while he owned the restaurant, his appreciation of music, and of people, deepened. When he and his wife sold Pucket’s 2021, he decided it was time to return full-time to music.
You Don’t Know Me is Heavy Drunk’s first album since Robinson sold Puckett's, and his renewed musical energy is palpable. The record’s sound is bolstered by a 10-piece brass band, led by Prince’s former trombonist, Roy Agee. Robinson said that he’s discovered a deep love for brass instruments when he heard New Orleans brass bands as a child:
“Yeah, I'm crazy for brass. I love to hear brass, when it comes to life. I'm a big trombone fan. I grew up going to New Orleans all the time; we were always down there listening to jazz bands and stuff like that. And I just never got over it. I incorporate that into every song that I write if I can.”
Robinson also talked about the songwriting on the new album. Some of the songs are about personal growth or misadventures of his past; nearly all contain elements of humor. He told Juliet,
“We've been laughing a lot. I mean, a lot of these songs are funny songs about stupid stuff that I did to paint myself in this or that corner growing up. And I've done a lot of stupid stuff. That's one of the reasons I called it Heavy Drunk, is because I've been there and I've done that.”
Yet the songs also contain more earnest reflections on Robinson’s past and present. He says the title song of the album, “You Don’t Know Me,” is about how falling in love can profoundly change who you are. The album’s first track, “Slippi Dupree” tells the story of a bus driver who comforted Robinson as a child after he received an F on his report card. He told the story on Kaleidoscope, before playing the song live:
“This is a song about my bus driver when I was in third grade. You know, third grade is the first year you get that letter grade, right? I had a big fat F on my report card. I knew when I got home my dad was going to tan my hide. So I was already crying when I got on the bus. Slippi was a black man. He was probably in his 40s and he stopped me and pulled me aside and says, ‘Hey, look, what’s the matter?’. He sat me up beside him on the bus and just talked me down and said, ‘It's going to be alright.' You know, he didn't have to do that. That wasn't his job. He was just being kind to me. And I never forgot that. We were friends the rest of that year and we talked as I'd get on and get off the bus and stuff. He was always a sweet man. And then he disappeared the next year. So I wanted to write his story. And this is it. It's called ‘Sippi Dupree.’”
Watch the music video for "Slippi Dupree" here:
“Slippi Dupree” and the rest of You Don’t Know Me are available on major digital streaming platforms, or for CD purchase. Robinson says Heavy Drunk will go on tour in 2024. For more information about the band’s tour dates and music releases, visit heavydrunk.com.
Text by Peter Day, adapted from an audio interview by Juliet Fromholt from November 22, 2023.