By Kelly Baughman
You may know him as his alter-ego, Big Earl, but Jack Robertson is more than just a funny man with an arsenal of songs about farm animals and close cousins. He’s a talented singer and songwriter with a loving personality, brains for days, and a heart of gold that shines through to everyone he meets. A husband, a father, and a former educator, Robertson proves he’s one of a kind and surely one of the last living true renaissance men.
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Robertson moved to Arkansas at the age of 10. Growing up with obstacles throughout his childhood (Robertson six months in a children’s hospital in Arizona for a bone deficiency and found himself living on his own at the age of 15), he turned to his sense of humor as a way to cope with the pressures of life.
“I was a kid with a short left leg in a Forest Gump style brace and a speech impediment. People made fun of me a lot, and I was bullied. But I figured out if you can get some of the bigger guys around you to laugh, they’ll make you their friend. I used my humor as a defense mechanism, but it worked. Nobody really bothered me after that,” Robertson said.
Never one to shy away from work, Robertson took a job chopping cotton in the fields of Arkansas at the age of ten years old. “I still had braces on my legs, and got a job working in the fields. By the end of the second day, my hip was bloody from the brace rubbing all day. I was making $1 an hour and it was brutal. But it wasn’t until I was older that I realized how people have helped me out in life,” he recalled.
Robertson said his boss gave him a “promotion” where his only responsibility was to sit on the tailgate of the truck and sharpen the hoes all day long. “I remember thinking of the other workers, ‘What a bunch of losers! I’ve only been here three days, and I got a promotion.’ It wasn’t until much later that I realized it wasn’t a promotion at all. It was my foreman helping me by getting me off of my feet,” he said.
Robertson said he’s been helped by random strangers more than a few times, being taken in by a family until he could make it on his own after finding himself homeless and living in a road grader for several days, and the manager of a VFW who gave him his first gig despite the reservation of hiring a kid.
“Even today, I find that random people will help me out in certain situations. It’s made me see the good in people. Kindness goes a long way. I’ve tried to pass that along to others. I have my days, but I’m a very positive person,” he said.
Robertson said it was getting the brace off of his leg and pushing himself to get involved in sports that really brought him out of his shell. With a new found confidence and having heard a Buck Owens song that he couldn’t get out of his head, Robertson took his hard earned money and bought himself a guitar. He taught himself to play, and by the age of 15 formed a band and made enough money to support himself.
“I was working at the Pizza Hut or the Sonic, then I’d go play a football game, then head over to the VFW to play a gig. We played 100% gut bucket country music, and I was making some pretty good money,” Robertson said.
After high school, Robertson went to college on a Pell Grant and received five F’s. “I didn’t apply myself, and I knew I was smarter than that. Unfortunately, I lost my Pell Grant and was forced to leave school,” he said.
Robertson spent the next several years searching for his way, attending HVAC trade school, managing a Sonic in Foley, graduating class president of the police academy, and more. Eventually, he found himself singing country music on stage every night in Branson, Missouri. “I was singing and playing guitar, and ended up going out on tour with David Alan Coe for a little while. But I knew I wanted to be a songwriter, so I packed up and moved to Nashville to pursue a writing career,” he said.
Having “known someone who knew someone”, Robertson found himself at Mercury records being offered a record deal. “Mercury offered me a two single deal and promised to back me with all the marketing they had. I had a meeting with SOR Records the next day who offered me a three album deal on the spot. I took that deal and it was a big mistake. I did three CMT videos, did 20 or 30 TV shows, had a bus, but they didn’t give me any creative control. They picked the Achy Breaky line dancing crap that was all the rage at the time, and my career was over before it started, but most of my songs sucked and my singing wasn’t anything to brag about anyways” Robertson recalled.
The Gulf Coast called him home, and Robertson went back to school, becoming a cardiac sonographer and eventually an Echocardiography instructor. “I took a class here and there after that and made good grades because I was paying for it myself. I knew it was time to get serious. I put music on the back burner for a while, but that’s when I walked into the Flora-Bama,” he said.
Robertson said he couldn’t get a gig at the Flora-Bama “to save his life”, until out of the blue, John Joiner called him and said Donna Slater was looking for a temporary guitar player. “I had more fun playing with the band for that two weeks than I had really ever had. They asked me to stay with the band (known as Jezebels Chillin),” he said. Along with Slater, Robertson played with Cathy Pace and Larry Strickland, and the band went on to great success over the years.
After Hurricane Ivan, Slater (at the time, Slater served as music booker at the Flora-Bama) offered Robertson the 5:30 pm slot as a solo act. “I told her there was nobody there during that time slot, so she told me to build it up,” he said. And build it up he did. Robertson still holds the Friday and Saturday 5:30 pm slot, and plays to a standing room only packed house every week.
Robertson said he played cover songs and originals in the beginning, but it was his dear friend, the late great Rusty McHugh, who encouraged him to use his wit and comic genius in his songwriting. “Rusty was a brilliant songwriter. To have a fresh idea with a fresh melody is hard enough, but to add in comedic punch lines every sentence or so is no easy task. He told me there was room for more than one comedy songwriter, so I sat down and wrote my first song about a guy banging a sheep,” Robertson laughs. “Rusty thought it was great, but I didn’t want to step on his toes. He pushed me to do it, so I told him I’d do a whole CD just about banging farm animals, he said “deal”, and we shook on it.”
Robertson’s first CD as his alter-ego, Big Earl (a name he subconsciously adopted from a soundman “Earl” he once knew), ‘Big Earl’s All Time Greatest Animal Love Songs’, was born and the rest is history.
After McHugh passed away, Robertson expanded his comedy songs to include other topics like ‘Get Out Of the Left Lane You Stupid Son of a B$#%’ and ‘Poontang on the Pontoon.’
Robertson’s songs make fun of everyone, but he said he always starts with himself. And while he understands that some people don’t like what he does on stage as Big Earl, he doesn’t let it get him down. “Oh, I get bad reviews all the time and I use them as promotional advertising for my show,” Robertson laughs. “I’ve learned you can’t always be everyone’s cup of tea, so just be yourself. If they don’t like it, they know where to find the door.”
Robertson said he can’t say enough about the Flora-Bama for allowing him to have full creative control and be who he wants Big Earl to be. “There’s not many places you can go that have the quality of soundmen, equipment, and the crowd like the Bama does. People are there to have a good time, and they really respond to the music. And the owners are so supportive. They never tell me what to do or what not to do. The let the musicians be who they are. That’s how they treat everyone that walks through the door. No matter where you come from or how much money you make….when you walk through these doors, we can all be our own individuals and equals,” he said.
Robertson said his “fame” as Big Earl has followed him all over the country thanks to the many people who come through the doors of the Flora-Bama from all over the world. “Last year we were in Nashville, and this lady walked up and said, ‘Oh my God! You’re Big Earl!’ Then we were in Vegas and somebody yelled out, ‘Big Earl!!!’ I’ve even had some of my ultrasound patients think they were on a hidden camera show when I walk in to do their procedure,” he said. “That’s the power of the Bama,” he added.
And if you see Big Earl on the street, feel free to get a selfie. “I love when people ask to take pictures with me. I can’t get enough of it,” he joyfully boasts, although he admits he has no idea why anyone would want one.
A loving husband to his wife Jamie (featured in her own article in this issue who met Robertson by heckling the band at a show) and father to his two daughters (he wrote and sang a special song on one of his daughter’s wedding day, not leaving a dry eye in the house), Robertson definitely has a soft side even if he doesn’t advertise that part. “I’ve got a reputation to uphold,” he said. “But I am a responsible father. I always tell my girls there are three rules in life. Your body is a temple. Always vote Republican. And never date a musician.”
As for his future plans, Robertson told Perdido Key Live exclusively that he wanted to announce that he will be running for Orange Beach City Council. When asked about his campaign platform, Robertson said, “My campaign slogan is going to be ‘I’ll promise anything to get elected’ because I need that $1400 a month, and I promise to put in a ‘locals only’ lane in Orange Beach. Anything y’all want, I got you. When people ask me who I want to run against, I just say whoever is going to be the easiest to beat,” he said.
Robertson even went so far as to say, “If anybody will let me put a campaign sign in their yard, contact me at Big Earl for OB City Council on Facebook. Hit me up!!”
As for his stage performances, Big Earl takes the stage every Friday and Saturday night at 5:30 pm, and Robertson plans to bring back his ‘Big Earl-vis’ variety show in the coming year. “It’s going to be bigger and better than ever. Little people, goats, mini-donkeys….you name it. I’ll have it. And of course the old classics like my arrival in a coffin and toilet version of ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’,” he said. Robertson is even considering putting together a Motown show with lots of celebrity impersonators like Ike and Tina, the Supremes, and more.
Big Earl may be the star of the stage show, but it’s Robertson’s spirit, creativity, and sense of humor that shines in everyday life. “I’ll hopefully be up there when I’m 80 with a walker throwing bologna at people’s bare behinds. I’m having fun, and when it stops being fun I’ll quit. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon,” he said.
We sure hope not, because while he may joke around a lot, Robertson is the kind of guy you’d be lucky to know, and that’s no campaign slogan talking.