They came for the music, Kelly Willis from Washington, D.C., in 1987 and Bruce Robison from Bandera a couple years later. The “rockabilly filly” and the Hill Country songsmith started dating in 1991, married in 1996 and had four kids in a span of five years. With Willis signed to MCA in the ’90s and Robison having his songs taken to the top of the country charts by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (“Angry All the Time”), George Strait (“Wrapped,” “Desperately”) and the Dixie Chicks (“Travelin’ Soldier”), Nashville paid the bills. But Austin has been home, without any thought of relocation all these years.
The musical culmination of all that history is “Cheater’s Game,” the first album credited to the duo of Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, which comes out Tuesday. The couple has always kept their careers separate, even using different booking agents and publicists, but the songwriter who sang and the singer who wrote were in it together all the way on this one. Weaving six originals and seven covers, “Cheater’s Game” is a near-perfect modern country album with an old feel. The songs overlap rather than run into each other, and you almost hold your breath until the next song proves itself, too.
“I’ve always been looking for a sound,” says Robison, who’s released eight solo albums to Willis’ seven. “All my favorite bands have a sound, and I think we’ve found ours with this one.” There’s not a false note on the record.
Made in Nashville with producer Brad Jones (Hayes Carll, Chuck Prophet), “Cheater’s Game” is less a duet record than one by a band with two singers. Robison says the record was inspired by the local club gigs he and Willis and their small combo starting playing around town in 2011 to get a little cash flow going. Maybe they just needed to get out of the house and have some fun with music instead of bemoaning the erosion of the recording industry, with file sharing and Pro Tools and social media replacing albums and studios and the folks who had your back.
At loose shows at the tiny Continental Club Gallery and Antone’s, the couple found what they started looking for together in 1991. It wasn’t unusual for the band to play a request right there on the spot, but it was always Robison, who knows hundreds, maybe thousands, of songs, taking the lead. (“Kelly’s not a big fan of unplanned moments,” he says.) But Willis had an idea that would spin Robison’s mind. She decided to secretly learn an especially wordy song — one Robison had never heard heard her sing before — then spring it on him like a prank you can dance to. This was all plotted out on Twitter, which Robison avoids like autotune, so at the Gallery one night, someone yelled a request for “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” and before Robison could say they didn’t know that one, Willis tore through the verses with the necessary brassiness. It’s on YouTube. Willis made his jaw drop.
Though the flame-haired mother isn’t socking it to the “Harper Valley P.T.A.” on “Cheater’s Game,” the 13-cut LP feels like it’s from that era of ’60s and ’70s country albums, when Buck Owens, Lynn Anderson and the like would surround the radio hits with a waltz here, a pop cover there, and maybe something with a south-of-the-border flavor.
Robison found “9,999,999 Tears,” a luscious country pop number sure to be a radio favorite, on one such album by Dickie Lee that he heard growing up in the Cowboy Capital of the World. At the other end of the pop spectrum is “Dreamin’,” a co-write with Miles Zuniga of Fastball that bounces between Cheap Trick unplugged and the Everly Brothers. The album is a child of the songs that made them want to play music.
“I was always running things,” says Robison, “but the smartest thing I did here was to let go of the reins. I put it in Brad’s hands, and that opened me up to what my role really was: to find songs and really dig into the music.” Jones pushed Robison to play almost all the acoustic guitar on the album, which gave the songs a more organic base.
Robison and Willis trekked to Nashville three times in the past year to make the record, which reunited them with former Greencards fiddle/ mandolin player Eamonn McLoughlin, now a top Nashville session guy.
“Cheater’s Game” was financed by a crowd-funding campaign that turned fictitious trailer park talk show host Gill Webb into Facebook’s Sir Share-a-lot. “Our manager, Mike (Crowley), wanted us to do a Kickstarter and I was against it,” Robison says. “It just didn’t feel right for us, but one day I was playing basketball with a couple of young filmmakers (brothers Josh and Nick Holden). They said they’d just made something with (actor) Bill Wise, who we’ve known for 20 years, and I just had a flash to make that Kickstarter thing with Bill. That’s how it’s gone with this project; things just fall out of the sky.”
The clueless Webb character mistakes Bruce and Kelly as father and daughter and keeps calling the album “Kickstarter,” but the humorous spot succeeded in getting the word out to the couple’s loyal, laid-back following. Asking for $35,000 to record the album, the Kickstarter campaign raised $44,000, with 563 donors receiving payback ranging from a private concert in their house ($10,000) to a song download ($1).
The creative process started a year earlier when the couple played just about every song they could think of when the kids, now ages 7 to 12, were at school. “We told each other from the beginning that we didn’t care where the songs came from, whether they were originals or covers,” Willis says. “We just wanted the best songs. And in choosing them we brought our two sides together.” After a couple weeks, they sent a demo of 20 songs to Jones, the former Matthew Sweet bassist, and he chose three: Robison originals “Leavin’” and “But I Do” and a cover of Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” A few weeks later, they’d send Jones another chunk of songs and there’d be more aggressive whittling.
The Keen cover is an interesting choice, as its dour tone seems out of place at this melodyfest. But then you listen to the words about a clumsy cowboy who finds himself through his partner and you can see the thematic outline. Although these songs were thrown together without a binding concept, the overall message is that the richness of life comes from flesh-and-blood relationships. The pinball machine album art throws it back to a time before computers and video games, when you had to leave the house for entertainment.
“Cheater’s Game” is an album of song couplets — with “We’re All the Way” by Don Williams (Robison first heard it on Eric Clapton’s “Slowhand”) and Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” establishing a touching tone, a bit of tension. Then the back-to-back rounders — “Leavin’” and “But I Do” — give sweet release. The closing pair of “Waterfalls” and “Dreamin’” bring the couple full circle for a melodic embrace, as the album’s mood lingers.
Willis and Robison wait until those last two songs to trade verses a la Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. She sings the title track, a co-write with the Trishas, with the barest trace of Bruce’s harmony, establishing that this will not be the usual country duet album.
Although the idea for this project bloomed about a year and a half ago, the roots were put down in late 2002, when the couple received two great bits of news on one day and decided to give their solo careers a rest. First, Robison’s song “Travelin’ Soldier” was picked to be the next Dixie Chicks single. Second, ultrasound showed Willis was pregnant with twins. As “Soldier” began its ascent to No. 1 on the country charts and “Home,” the album it’s on, sold six million copies out of the chute, the Robison-Willis family was assured financial security. And Willis made her mark as a singular artist with “What I Deserve” (1999) and “Easy” (2002), a pair of acclaimed albums that sold about 100,000 copies each on an independent label. They could now concentrate on raising their kids.
But the week after “Travelin’ Soldier” hit No. 1, Natalie Maines made that controversial statement against President George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq invasion, and the single fell 44 spots the next week and was off the charts the week after. “Home” had expected to hit 10 million sales, as did its two predecessors, but stalled at six.
“Soldier” was Robison’s last No. 1 hit. “It’s been a struggle,” he says of the past few years, “but, really, it’s always been a struggle.” He built an analog studio with writing royalties but had to sell it when the recording industry took a dive. Willis sang jingles for Henna Chevrolet.
“Cheater’s Game” is a record you root for while you’re listening because Bruce and Kelly, both in their mid-40s, are our neighbors, our friends. Working hard, they represent what is best about an Austin where you can make your music and raise your family and pay your bills without having to sell your soul to stardom promises. The Internet has diluted everything from bookstores to sex, but there are still musicians keeping love strong in the house of songs. This can still be a magical place.
We came for music, but stayed for how it connects us.