And I tried hard to tell you I was no kinda dancer
'Took my hand to prove I was wrong
You guided me gently
Though I though I could never
We were dancing together at the end of the song
"Bruce has always held onto the reins and been the producer, the arranger, the writer, the performer." Kelly Willis is explaining this because I've asked her about working with producer Brad Jones on the new Kelly Willis/Bruce Robison record, Cheater's Game. "For [Bruce], that was a really new thing to do and, I think, something that was really a great opportunity, to work with someone and trust him, let him figure out what Bruce's strong points were and emphasize those for him." Instead of putting the whole record together at one time, they started with three tunes, a first dance, if you will. "We got together and did three songs for him, the first three were Leavin', But I Do and No Kinda Dancer. Bruce said 'Okay, I'm going to trust this guy to be the producer,' and we were so happy with how it turned out that we went full steam ahead and did the other songs after that." And though he might have thought he could never, they were recording together through all 13 songs.
No Kinda Dancer, the Robert Earl Keen tune, is one of six covers on the record. It's also one of at least two songs with a bit of tuba. (Bass player Dave Jaques played on those first three songs and brought his tuba along, too - the liner notes say there's tuba on all three, but I only hear the instrument on Dancer and But I Do. But I digress.) Dancer is illustrative of a familiar place for Bruce. "When he first heard that song, it sounded to him like where he was from. It was just such a clear picture, the story that it tells. He grew up in the Hill Country, going to those kind of places. People bring their kids even, just dancing and drinking and all that kind of stuff. I think hearing that made him think he could be a songwriter and write about that world." And though Bruce is the principal singer on Dancer, they mixed things up a bit. "We just love it when we figure out something like this, something that just feels fun to do, but on the chorus I take over the melody and he sings the harmony. You wouldn't know that necessarily, but for us the math of trying to figure out how to make that song work is fun."
And it's cruel, how your life can change
How he'll throw you down like a stick on the ground
A fool for everyone to see, I know
It ain't cool, how your life can change
I know more than I'd ordinarily
Cause his fool, would ordinarily be me
The other seven songs on the record are by Bruce, including Ordinary Fool. The "throw you down like a stick on a ground" line is a nifty bit of songwriting, disarming in its simplicity. Kelly says that the song has been around quite a while, and even got a slight retool before making its debut on this record. "I've just loved that song and I've loved that line. It's just so perfect, it just lets you know, yeah, you're just being tossed away, carelessly, you know?" She goes on about Bruce's songwriting: "I love his way with words, he doesn't write real mysteriously, you know, there are some writers who, with the poetry of how they write, you're not sure what they're talking about. With Bruce it's always a very clear story and yet he writes in a unique voice that has this deeper beauty to it, even though it is so simple." Yes. What she said.
What are her favorite songs on this record? An unfair question, no doubt, but my question, and I wanted an answer, so I begged. "Aw man, I don't know, it is hard to choose, but I really love Leavin', I kinda think that might be one of my absolute faves. And I love Lifeline. And I don't know, it changes every day, but I really think the way Border Radio turned out is so fun, it just makes me want to dance to hear it. So maybe those three would be my choices today."
She calls toll free and requests an old song
Something they used to know
She prays to herself that wherever he is,
He's listening to the Border Radio
This Dave Alvin cover is one of the highlights of the record. After Kelly's silky smooth voice lays us low with the title song, a ballad about exactly what it sounds like it might be about, Border Radio is the second cut. It continues the theme of heartbreak, but picks up the tempo just a bit. Bruce is singing lead now, singing about a woman who's lamenting her man's absence while listening to a Mexican radio station, with her (and his) son asleep in the next room. The radio makes you think about this record, easily a top 10 alt-country album, if not the alt-country album of 2013. How does it get played, where does it get played? SiriusXM is part of the answer. "Well it's cool how SiriusXM Radio is kinda taking the place of that border radio, where they were able to reach out to a far and wide audience before the regulation clamped down on them. Now we have [satellite radio] that can do the same thing, unite people who are far apart. A station that can do that is going to help spread the word about our music, it's amazing, very cool for us. Other than that, we're probably on Americana stations. We might get played on a few country stations, but it's a little more of a grass roots kind of a world for people like us. We're used to it. It's been that way for a while. It's like a small network of friends, these smaller stations. They really have a huge impact on your ability to play a town, have people show up at the show. They're like your warriors out there, spreading the word."
The word is out on this record. It's been high on the Americana charts, getting notice from just about everyone. Dallas Wayne of SiriusXM's Outlaw Country had the couple on the other day, just gushing about it, calling it a masterpiece. I don't disagree with that. It's as even and good as anything I've heard in quite a while. There's not a bad song on the record - it's 100% filler free. There is steel guitar, good steel, by Pete Finney and Al Perkins throughout, as well as a strong dose of fiddle by Eamon Mclaughlin (who also plays mandolin). This is country music, Texas country music. "Sure, that's a conversation that we're always right in the middle of, what's country music? That's just what we've been playing for years and years, it's just country music, I guess. We live in a state where there are a lot of places to play country music, and there's a lot of people who play. [Steel guitar and fiddle] are part of it and I can't imagine making a record without them, really, they're just what we turn to, what we hear ... but there was no attempt to sound old school or new school or anything, it just was what felt was right to compliment or interpret the song."
And I would give anything
For one more night to run
For one last song to sing
You weren't asking much at all
Just catch you when you fall
On your own, the long way home
"Bruce heard [Hayes Carll's Long Way Home] around the time it first came out. When I was making Translated From Love, Bruce pushed it to me, wanted me to record it. I remember listening to it in the car and sobbing, it was so beautiful. But it didn't really have a place on the record I was making. The record was pretty much pieced together, and we didn't see how it would fit. Then I forgot about it, really, not like I forgot the song, but it wasn't on my list. But Bruce remembered it, pulled it back in.
"You know, performing that song, it's such a beautifully written song, the melody is so beautiful, it's almost like it performs itself. It's just this gem. I feel like I don't have to even do anything. Every night I get goose bumps when I sing it. I think about people that I know, that I've loved, that are no longer here and it's just, it's one of those powerful, magical songs, you feel like it was just a gift to all of us, however it came to be."
What does Hayes think about your version? "I know that Hayes has heard it. We haven't really talked about it. I hope he liked it." I bet Hayes liked it just fine. The song is a tribute to a friend of his who died too early, and as personal as it is for him, hearing Kelly Willis interpret it has to be a good thing. That comes with a warning, though. As Steve Earle has acknowledged, you can lose a song when the right woman records it. Listen to Emmylou's version of Goodbye, you'll see what I mean.
Everything keeps on changing
But it's all just the same
You know, deadly serious and
Yet somehow still a game
And who's the crazy fool who keeps on
Changing what the winning hand's revealing?
Bruce's song Leavin' may be my favorite on the record. It has that money line, a bit reminiscent of Alejandro Escovedo's Castanets: "But the girls all look the same when they're leavin.'" And it has this couple harmonizing, as they've found a way to do through 4 kids and two careers as well as flat tires, broken strings, bad mike cords, smelly venues and all the other joys and pains of playing music. As Kelly says, "There are a lot of highs and lows being in a road band." Speaking of which, Kelly and Bruce are careful to name the folks they play with regularly (Geoff Queen, John Ludwick a/k/a Lunchmeat, Joey Shuffield, Sweney Tidball and Will Dupuy) in the liner notes even though other Nashville-based musicians sat in for the recording. "These guys did a lot of hard work figuring out what worked and what didn't. You know, a lot of the personality that these songs ended up with started with what we did with them, so we wanted to make sure that they were recognized on the record. The people that you play with a lot, you go through a lot of blood sweat and tears with those people, a lot of travel nightmares, then also experiencing the bliss of playing music together." Well said. And well done on this fine record.
For a glimpse of Kelly and Bruce playing live (including a few of the songs from this record), here they are on a recent edition of Imus in the Morning. Good stuff.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines.