“I don’t know if it was ever some big idea,” says Kelly Willis with a musical laugh. “It’s just something we’ve always sort of done. Our Christmas shows were always so fun, and obviously we’ve always been part of each other’s records. But we’re also our own people. We’ve always been very careful about not losing sight of that. We didn’t want to get lost in a duo because we are so different, and we’ve each worked so hard to establish our own careers.” The thing about chemistry, though, is it can’t be denied. To hear them sing together is to understand opposite attraction, spontaneous combustion and a whole lotta life lived together. Robison and Willis—two decades in—know the way the other leans almost without talking.
And that telekinetic thrust is what makes Cheater’s Game, a collection of songs that hurt, cheat, doubt, lust and hold on, so very delicious. Whether it’s the busted samba refiguring of Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio” that turns up the woman’s reality from the Blasters’ original, Don Williams’ truth in what’s really going on “We’re All The Way” or the Beatles-esque shuffling pluck of sweeping close harmonies on Robison’s own “But I Do,” there’s complexity in the neon and the heartbreak, as much said in the tone these notes are sung with as the actual lyrics or what the instrumental breaks evoke.
“It was a lot of things,” Robison says. “Crazy, sexy, cool, terrifying…We both know how to make records, have takes on how this works…But together that all goes out the window. This is bringing in 30 songs and sitting with her, then Kelly just sings’em… Some work, some don’t… and some, well, something just happens! Those are the ones we keep.”
For all their differences musically—Willlis explains, “I’m more rockabilly/60s, and he’s got that ‘70s Texas songwriter thing”—they’re both artists deeply rooted in the hard country, yet deeply progressive music scene that’s Texas post-Bob Wills. A place long on big emotions, serious Saturday nights, long necks, roadhouses, big hair, roughnecks and tender hearted women, Texas’ Robison and Willis bridge the gaps and build a refuge for the Venus/Mars continuum that is men and women high on hormones and short on guilt, not to mention the craggy aftermath of same.
They also follow in the tradition of couples making kinetic music of all stripes. Not just Johnny and June and Tammy and George, Waylon and Jesse or even Conway and Loretta, but also X’s roots-steeped punks John Doe and Exene Cervenka. That merging of songs and life, knowing and dreaming adds depth and frenzy to the music.
“I’d never suggest we were in any of their leagues,” Willis says. “But seeing them, I do feel a kinship. Making music with that person you’re closest to in the world, who understands what this is… Bruce and I have been together since 1991, and a lot has happened to us over all that time. It’s a lot just being in show business. Then you’re a couple and trying to do that. Of course there’s friction and disappointment along the way. But it makes everything more, and better.”
You can hear the palpable joy on heartbreakers like Dickie Lee’s classic “9,999,999,” as well as Robison’s sultry stakes are high “Cheater’s Game” and the languidly romantic “Waterfall,” with Willis’ red velvet voice angsting for the missing lover intertwined with Robison’s basic blond wood declarations. The chemistry between the pair ignites these songs, giving them a third dimension that makes 1+1 something closer to 5.
Maybe it’s because even if on only a metaphysical plane they’ve lived many of these emotions, if not moments. From the awkward engagement of Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer” to the aw shucks gobsmackedness of “Ordinary Fool,” there is a good bit of the early days of Bruce’n’Kelly in here.
There’s a transformative thing that passes between them. Listening to Hayes Carll’s regret-filled “Long Way Home,” the ballad takes on a sense of gentle compassion for the lost soul, a desire for some kind of deliverance beyond the knowledge that they’re gone.
“Sadness, happiness or tension, but it’s really all about the tension,” Robison admits. “I think whatever’s there is amplified by the harmony, what’s between the notes as much as the notes: the way they bend and twist.”
“Beyond the harmony, there is something that happens when it works,” Willis picks up. “You can’t explain it, but you know… Look at ‘Lifeline,’ with its fabulous melody and the chorus with those harmonies. That is so much more. Maybe it’s that I’m such a fan of Bruce and his writing, or maybe it’s just loving him so much and having that, knowing he’s there makes the song better! They make it more because they understand.”
Enlisting producer Brad Jones also helped. The man who’s worked with Over The Rhine, Josh Rouse, Hayes Carll and Jill Sobule provided an outside perspective that allowed objectivity.
“He works from a different world than us,” Willis explains. “Though he’s done some artists from this world, too…He drew out some different things from us, things we wouldn’t have seen.”
It runs right through the project, right through to the Everly-esque “Dreamin’,” which Robison wrote with Fastball’s Miles Zuniga. What starts as a hushed heartbreak for a summer love turns into a classic country lope of regret that’s built for Wurlitzer jukeboxes and those last moments of what was.
“We really wanted a sound that was unique to our little combo,” Willis says. “Something quiet and not what you’d expect, something no one else would do. We went on the road all summer as a quartet…with a stand up bass and Bruce not playing electric guitar…and in all that we found this.”
Still, as Robison cautions, “The last thing we want to do is be a boring old married couple! Because the happy suburban married couple is not what this is…We spent a year going through songs, sending them off to Brad, and getting his feedback. This is very old school, but we try to approach it from the left flank: a little quirky, a little old and obviously very much what Kelly does so well.
“Getting to go onstage with her is like getting up there with a smart bomb. I know whatever happens, she’s going to be amazing…the songs are going to shine…and we’re all going to have a whole lot of fun, even if we are singing a bunch of really sad songs.”
“That’s true,” Willis agrees. “We really connected with these songs, and went places neither of is would have been before. This is so much more carefree and fun for, being part of a band, getting to do this with Bruce. There’s a real trust when we’re on that stage, and it gives me this sense of joy. You can hear that, and that’s one thing you can’t fake.”
Faking it is for old married couples, something both Robison and Willis have already disallowed. Making music together seems to make them both fresher, freer and more inspired.