Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison Go on the Record about Life after Our Year
Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison are getting ready to take a break from each other.
Now don’t get alarmed. It’s not what you think. The tuneful toast of Texas twosomes who helped make Austin awesome aren’t for a split second sailing into the sunset like Captain & Tennille.
Married with four children, Willis and Robison put aside their Lone Star lives as solo artists a few years ago to unite as an all-Americana couple. But with a series of Texas dates within the past two weeks, they began what resembles—at least for now—a farewell tour.
Along with their well-received 2013 duo debut, Cheater’s Game, the follow-up symbolizes what Robison calls “a great document” of their time together. If they stop there as a recording duo, those duets undoubtedly will find a precious place among the family heirlooms.
Before they go back to their individual projects beginning in 2015, two soothing voices swathed in quiet luxury for ten swan songs say it better than any Hallmark Mother’s Day card.
“Doing this act together, we kind of meant for it to be about a year or so and it turned into four years,” Robison said in a joint interview with Willis over speakerphone from their Austin home near the end of April, just days before they took their show on the road again.
“So it’s really that we have so many things that we kind of feel like we might just have to schedule a little break in, or else it won’t happen. Kelly definitely wants to do some music on her own and I’ve always got things I’m working on.”
Raising children ranging in age from eight (Joseph) to thirteen (Deral)—including 11-year-old twins Abigail and Benjamin—is challenging enough, but Willis seems determined to have her first solo record since 2007’s Translated From Love out this time next year.
“Bruce just put everything on the calendar so that it will happen,” Willis said, laughing. “That’s the way we did Our Year. He just put it on the calendar and whether or not I felt ready, we just had to do it, ’cause that’s the day we had it scheduled for. That’s the way, the next year, he’s kind of mapped it out. Like I go in the studio at the end of the summer and release it at a certain date. So, hopefully, we can stay on track with that timeline.”
Name That Toon
Don’t call it a trial musical separation, though, because both of them seem to enjoy each other’s company, whether it’s at home, onstage or in the studio. At least most of the time.
If the family that plays together, stays together, they definitely fit the prototype, earning nominations for best album and best duo/group from the Americana Music Association last year. But that doesn’t necessarily mean this long, tall (and gregarious) Texan and the slight, bright woman described in a 2002 No Depression cover story (right) as “hopelessly, effortlessly glamorous” enjoy writing songs together.
Our Year features several hidden chestnuts written by other notable songwriters such as T Bone Burnett (“Shake Yourself Loose”) and Walter Hyatt (“Motor City Man”), while two by Robison (“Carousel,” “Anywhere But Here”) and one by Willis (“Lonely For You”) were composed with other people.
Before deciding to team up with his wife, Robison did his homework and was happy to discover that some of his heroes (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings) were real men who successfully collaborated with their better halves (June Carter Cash, Jessi Colter). Not a caricature in the bunch.
“So it really made it feel like … ‘Who knows? Maybe we’ll do two songs, maybe we’ll do 200,’ ” he initially thought in terms of recording. But put them together in a room with pens in hand, and their collective songbook might as well be a coloring book.
If songwriting partners were cartoon characters, Bruce and Kelly might rank with Popeye and Olive Oyl or Fred and Wilma Flintstone, who quarrel and quibble a bit but at the end of the day hug it out. Still …
“We wrote a song that almost made it onto this thing,” Robison said, before admitting the cold, hard truth. “God, we’re terrible writing together. It’s just awful.”
Quickly chiming in, Willis dryly added: “I don’t know why. It’s gotta be Bruce’s fault.”
Robison admitted as much.
“It’s hard to know why,” he said. “But the different things that are important to know are that I’m a terrible cowriter. So people that are on there like Darden Smith (“Carousel”) or Monte Warden (“Anywhere But Here”) or people that I’ve known for a million years, I have attempted to do that kind of thing in Nashville, which really is the way people do things now, writing tons of songs. And I’m not good at it at all. And I don’t really like it, honestly. … It’s such a weird thing to sit there and throw things out and say, ‘I like that,’ and say, ‘I don’t like that.’ So we really just … you know, I don’t wake up in the morning just saying, ‘Let’s get together and write a song, Kelly.’ We always have stuff better to do than that.”
As more playful repartee surfaced during this interview, they materialized as colorful characters with cordial charm. But their lighthearted jabbing manages to draw the line, going nowhere near bitter Toontown residents like Leroy and Loretta Lockhorn.
Robison pretended to prod Willis for not remembering the name of the song they did write together, though he didn’t have a clue, either.
“How does it go?” he asked his wife, trying to come up with the words. “Oh, I’ll think about it …”
Kelly: “Oh, yeah …”
Bruce: “She’s forgotten about it. It’s actually a really good song.”
Kelly: “You know what? I’m taking your part off and just writing my part for my solo record. (laughs)
Bruce: “She’s expunged me from the whole process. I’m only finding out about this now.”
Love Match Made in Heaven?
They’ve been collaborating almost since they met, though that first encounter in the early 1990s didn’t exactly start out on a good note.
Dating someone else at the time, Robison and his then-girlfriend were fans of Willis, and happened to see her and her previous husband, drummer Mas Palermo, at Rockefeller’s, the Houston club where mutual friends in the Wagoneers were playing.
“We went up there and just tried to say hello because we both knew of each other,” Robison said. “And Kelly was so shy, she didn’t even speak. And so me and my girlfriend, we just kind of looked at each other and walked away like, ‘Well, I guess that’s not going anywhere.’ ”
Willis laughed while recalling the incident, saying, “Oh, yeah. It’s probably a classifiable disorder that I had at the time.”
Their initial unofficial collaboration might have sounded like true romance, but they didn’t exactly win over any new fans, according to Willis.
“The first time we spent any time together, I remember we were sitting on a rooftop at a friend’s house (in Austin) and started singing some Everly Brothers songs together,” Willis said. “And everybody got bored and went away except for Bruce and I.”
The harmonizing became part professional, part personal as they started dating.
“And then we broke up,” Robison said. “And I made my first record when we were broken up. It was this horrible thing because I had to call her up. I tried these other girl singers and I ended up, it was really, I mean it was not a good time. And we were not happy about anything.”
Not one to name names, Robison would only say his backup plan of backup vocalists failed but “they’re wonderful singers now and amazing Austin musicians.”
If the first breakup was the most painful, it didn’t prevent others from happening. “Yeah,” Willis said. “We got all that tumultuous stuff out of the way before we went and got married [in 1996].”
Naturally, one of his songs he eventually needed Willis to sing was “Angry All the Time,” which Tim McGraw took to No. 1 on Billboard’s hot country songs list in 2001 after recording it with wife Faith Hill.
Falling in love with Willis and her voice simultaneously, Robison drew his own practical conclusion.
Trying to Make Room for Two
“When she sings on my records, it’s automatically a duet,” Robison said of Willis. “It’s not a background singing thing. Her vocals, in a good way — I hate to use this word — will dominate things. As a fan, I think she’s a true stylist among doing other things. But that voice, it speaks through in a way that mine doesn’t. And so, you know, that’s a great thing when that’s what you’re looking for.”
Other questions and revelations sprouted during this three-way conversation, and early on Willis wondered out loud about the writing imbalance on their records.
“I don’t know why this is, and I might have to ask Bruce, but whenever we do our things together … I’m happy to … but for some reason my stuff doesn’t quite make the ‘Bruce & Kelly’ cut,” she said. “My stuff is very personal. … It doesn’t often have a place that Bruce can put his personality on.”
Willis was pleased to announce that she’s already written about six songs for her next solo project, and is writing more on her own without the aid of a partner before seeing “where I need help and what’s missing. Sometimes you look at a project and you go, ‘Oh my God, there’s eight ballads.’ ”
Next time around, a Bruce Robison song isn’t a cinch to make the Kelly Willis cut.
“There’s a chance, though right now I don’t know,” she said teasingly. “I’m not that far along in the creative process yet. But there’s always a chance.”
Country Girl Next Door?
As much as Nashville, Tony Brown and MCA tried, they couldn’t turn Willis into America’s mainstream country sweetheart, a sexy starlet with the ability to turn heads while bending genres. She just wasn’t that kind of girl.
“On one hand, it was very exciting, it was very fun,” said Willis, whose debut album was 1990’s Well Travelled Love. “It was a real gift to be placed in a company like that with a team like that that are doing as much as they can to help you. But on the other hand, I didn’t really fit. Like a square trying to get in that circle. So it was a challenge. [laughs]
“I really wasn’t cut out for the kind of stuff that they needed me to be doing. It was very hard for me. I wasn’t a Nashville superstar. I wasn’t able to do interviews without almost breaking into tears because of my social phobia. So it was hard but it was also extremely fun. I have great memories of that time.”
Even before the likes of Shania Twain and Faith Hill popped the lid off country, Willis did attract a broader audience with her elegant voice, earthy songs like “Baby Take a Piece of My Heart” and appealing girl-next-door looks. One of 1994’s “Most Beautiful People” by the magazine that makes such distinctions, she quietly lured fans who wouldn’t go near a traditional country saloon into places like the Grizzly Rose in Denver in the early 1990s.
Willis’ alternative take would eventually emerge on albums like 1999’s What I Deserve. But raised with a well-rounded musical appreciation, the restless daughter of an on-the-move military family wasn’t in tune with what was playing on country radio before her career took off.
“When I listen to that stuff now, I like the stuff back then that I used to hate,” she said. “I’m like, ‘You know, that’s not so bad.’
“I wasn’t hardly into the really, really mainstream, popular country music. I was into the edgier kind of stuff. So a lot of that mainstream stuff I like now. I mean, not that I go around listening to it all the time, but if it comes on the radio, I might turn it up and sing along. Whereas today’s mainstream country music, I’m not there yet. But give me 10 years …” [laughs]
The Duo Dynamic
For someone who enjoyed Willis as a solo performer and made 1991’s Bang Bang his first country cassette purchase that seemed out of a place alongside Husker Du and Big Audio Dynamite, I’m looking forward to finally seeing the Bruce-and-Kelly duo dynamic this year before they go their separate professional ways.
“How to Sock It to Your Husband in the 21st Century” was a cute story Willis wrote about slyly working “Harper Valley PTA” (her splendid cover on Our Year of the Jeannie C. Riley rabble-rousing hit) into their show. She now takes charge of the set list, Robison said, so that must make for some entertaining onstage chemistry, mixing Johnny-and-June authenticity with Sonny-and-Cher electricity.
“We do have some power issues when we share a stage,” Willis said when asked what she misses most about a solo career. “We both have a very different style of running a show and so it’s been a real learning experience figuring out how to share that. … It might be kind of fun to get back to doing it the way we want to do it.”
Robison was a little more diplomatic, adding, “There’s so much when it gets down to just like which songs you’re gonna play, what the set’s gonna look like, what time you start. Every little bit of it, it’s amazing how she and I both were the Grand Poobah of our own little thing forever. But we figured it out pretty good. I love the time onstage. …
“It’s probably good that you go off and play a (solo) gig and you’re with your buddies. And so that’s good to kind of have your own thing. But now when I do a gig, then all the pressure is back on me. I forget how much I worried about whether it was gonna be a good show and whether people were gonna show up and all those things you worry about, which just seemed to go off my shoulders whenever I’m doing a show with Kelly.
“And I didn’t realize — I won’t say I was phoning it in — but when you get to a point where you’ve been doing a certain thing for 20 years, sometimes you need something to really give you a shot in the arm, especially the way things are now. And it’s real hard. There are so many records and so much music out there vying for people’s attention. And so it really was a shot in the arm to do this project together,” he concluded.
While comfortable sharing so much time onstage together has its merits — and increased lead vocals by Willis make Our Year more evenly spilt than Cheater’s Game — she also thrives on the one-upmanship aspect of their spirited but simpatico relationship.
“It’s kind of a fun competition,” she said. “We kind of keep each other on our toes. We don’t want the other one to overshadow us or outshine us. You know, that’s no fun. So we both are always trying to improve and be better and be ready.”
Coming from a songwriting family that includes younger sister Robyn Ludwick, older brother Charlie and Charlie’s ex-wife (the Dixie Chicks’ Marty Robison), Bruce Robison has had a pretty productive recording career, with and without Kelly. Yet, while weighing husband/wife competitiveness vs. brother/siblings, he seemed grateful, not threatened.
“Well, boy, me and Charlie have something special going on in a lot of ways,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily competition whenever the other guy’s just always winning. I love it. …
“I really don’t know if people would’ve paid attention to me at all if Kelly hadn’t recorded my songs and we hadn’t sung them together,” he added, pointing out that Charlie and the Dixie Chicks (“Travelin’ Soldier”) also have brought his tunes to life. “I feel really fortunate, even when there are moments that will drive you nuts.”
This Could Be Their Year
The Bruce and Kelly Show is currently scheduled to run through August, followed by their annual Christmas concerts in and around Austin. So the tour and the upcoming album backing it continually occupy their attention like the loyal family dog that keeps barking to go outside.
Recorded at Alex the Great studio in Nashville with Cheater’s Game producer Brad Jones back at the helm, Our Year includes some of those same musicians — drummer Fred Eltringham (Wallfowers), Eamon McLoughlin (fiddle and mandolin, currently with Josh Tuner) — along with touring band members John Ludwick (standup bass) and Geoff Queen (guitars).
“What’s the saying about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts?” Robison asked rhetorically a day after they picked up the Lone Star Music Award for best country album of the year. “We had sung together forever and I thought it was really good. And then when we really focused on it, I thought that we came up with the sound. And I don’t put myself on that level, but the bands that I love (the Kinks, friends who played on Willie Nelson’s records), that made me go nuts for music, that’s what they had. … I was always liking the people that really left the rough edges in. … The record is very similar to what we do in our living room.”
There would be no family feuding over that point.
“Yeah, this record, both records really, were almost completely just live, each song is almost exactly what was happening in the room,” Willis said. “We didn’t really come back and do a lot of overdubs. We went for the best vocal performance and unless somebody sang the wrong words somewhere, just left it.”
Robison, who plans to make another record while exploring other possibilities through the latest in streaming and video technology, vows that they’ll continue to perform together. As long as it doesn’t become “nonstop Bruce and Kelly” and they figure out “the right way to where we don’t beat it in the ground.”
They’ve both handled lead vocals on “This Will Be Our Year,” but Jones went with Willis on the album, talking Robison into singing a totally different harmony than they’ve sung during Christmas shows.
Willis might find irony in the album title taken from the Zombies cover, noting, “If you just say these things and proclaim them, maybe they’ll actually happen.”
While contemplating life onstage without her husband, though, she’s drop-dead serious.
“What I love about playing with Bruce, I love getting to play these songs that wouldn’t be in my solo set. I love singing with him, harmonizing with him,” she said. “It’s the most fun I ever have on stage. I love … Bruce is a lot more fun on stage than I am. I’ve always been so nervous in my own solo shows (like when she needed an oxygen tank to breathe at the 1999 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and not just for the altitude), that I’m not as relaxed. And when I play with Bruce, I feel like we’re just having a party.
“We’re just hanging out and it’s really fun. I hope that I can take that experience back with me in my solo shows. But I just like being around Bruce. (laughs) And so that’s what I would miss. You know, but I’m always gonna get to play and sing with him. So it’s not like we would just never get to do that again.”
Just in case, though, make plans to join that group hug now.
Publicity photo courtesy of the artists.