The Wall Street Journal
By BARRY MAZOR
After Years of Marriage, a Partnership
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison have been married since 1996 and, individually, they have been among the best-known and most successful performers and songwriters on the Austin, Texas, music scene longer than that. She’s had six albums of her own; he’s had eight. They’ve toured with combined solo shows, made guest appearances on each other’s records and recorded a few Christmas songs together. But the new “Cheater’s Game”—released last week on their own Premium Records imprint, through Thirty Tigers Records—is their first full-album collaboration. While they share so much in common, including the raising of their four children, ages 7 to 12 (a pursuit that had occupied most of Ms. Willis’s time in recent years), their own musical tendencies have been distinct enough that finding the combined sonic sweet spot that could work for them as a musical duo took some experimentation.
Ms. Willis’s focus has evolved since the late 1980s from rockabilly to mainstream country and then to alternative country rock; “Translated From Love,” her most recent release, in 2007, featured songs she co-wrote with maverick indie rocker Chuck Prophet and a cover of David Bowie and Iggy Pop’s “Success.” Mr. Robison’s songs have most often been in the Texas singer-songwriter personal-storytelling mode. But with his ability to deliver catchy songs with strong hooks, he’s also the writer of such No. 1 country hits as “Wrapped” for George Strait, “Angry All the Time” for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and “Travelin’ Solider” for the Dixie Chicks.
“We complement each other, in a way,” Ms. Willis suggested, as we recently discussed their work on the new CD at their label’s Nashville headquarters. “We make each other a little stronger when we’re together, in areas that we might shy away from on our own. There’s an interesting tension in the vocals between people who are very close; there are all sorts of layers of real emotion going on there between the two of you; it’s real, and it’s coming out in what you’re singing together.”
“We did lots of shows once we got back out traveling,” Mr. Robison added. “That’s where we came up with this sound for the record and even found the songs from our past that fit into it—acoustic, with a focus on real duo harmonies. I don’t usually even have a metric to be striving for; this time I knew I had to find songs that worked for us.”
The result—with seven new songs by Mr. Robison and six from generation-crossing songwriters ranging from the veteran “gentle giant” Don Williams to Robert Earl Keen and Hayes Carll—is a masterly collection, produced by Brad Jones, that is occasionally keyed to poignant storytelling but more often to rolling along with acoustic fiddle and banjo-driven grooves. It is all unabashedly country. “Kelly’s voice is our silver bullet,” Mr. Robison volunteered. “When she sings a song, it turns it into a country song.”
There are some surprising dividends to the newfound blended approach. The Willis-Robison turn on the Blasters’ “Border Radio” allows the 1981 song to be heard afresh. While it was originally presented so effectively as a rocking rhythm number that few noticed it had a storyline, now lyric and rhythm are rebalanced so that its portrait of an abandoned woman’s last vestige of connection with her ex via the airwaves stays up front. Dickie Lee’s 1976 country hit “9,999,999 Tears” is reimagined as the sort of infectious alt-country rocker that Ms. Willis specialized in during the late 1990s.
Given the long history of competition and sometimes even open animosity between some from the Texas and Nashville musical scenes, it may seem surprising that this project was recorded in Nashville at all. But the couple have a long history of their own—of keeping their own lines of communication between the two cities open.
“At home,” Bruce Robison laughs, “somebody will come up and say, ‘Ach—Nashville!’ And I’ll say, ‘That is not my fight, dude.’ I’ve avoided it; it looks like sour grapes to me to get into that. Early on I decided that I really needed to make my peace and co-exist; they keep all the country music in Nashville, and I knew that that’s what I wanted to be part of. I love being part of it—but I stay in Texas!”
This spring will mark the 20th anniversary of the moment that Ms. Willis walked away from mainstream country, after spending four years signed to MCA in the adventurous period when it was energized by Tony Brown, then chief of that major “chart” country label. She was uncomfortable with MCA’s tendency to hawk her natural glamor over her talents and wanted to vary her musical possibilities, but she recalls those Nashville years without even a hint of resentment: “No; I’m so grateful for those experiences. I was really lucky to get my break at that point, to get to have that education and come here and work with really talented people of that era. At the time, it seemed like it was going to begin and end with what happened there, but it was really laying a foundation for the career I have now.”
Ms. Willis foresees writing songs for a new solo project in the near future. And both she and Mr. Robison say they would enjoy collaborating again. “We do get to have our own quiet moments that are beautiful and intimate and meaningful,” Ms. Willis says, “but we really wanted for this to be fun.” Mr. Robison adds, “After a while when you go out and play, you feel like ‘It’s Friday night; we’re all here. Lets have a good time!’”
Mr. Mazor writes about country and roots music for the Journal.
A version of this article appeared Feb. 19, 2013, on page D5 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: After Years Of Marriage, A Partnership.