Bruce & Kelly: A Couple That Plays Together, Stays Together

After spending a majority of the past 12 Decembers singing season's greetings to audiences around Texas and across the nation, how on Earth are Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis not sick to death of holiday music at this point?

"Well, I don't know," laughs Willis by phone from the couple's home in Austin. "We still have a good time. There's something about playing music with someone that you love. We don't take it too seriously."

A few times a year Willis says their bass player will break into the first few bars of "Santa Baby" to groans all around, and by the end of their holiday run admits they can be prone to wishing "Merry effing Christmas" to each other.

"But, you know, that's fun," she says. "I just like being in a band and going out and making music, and doing ridiculous stuff together. I've played some of my other songs way more than this Christmas stuff, some since I was a teenager. But it's still fun for me. I don't care."

Robison and Willis have staked out some prime real estate at the intersection of country music and Americana that has made them two of Austin's most successful and respected musicians. Robison has written No. 1 hits for George Strait ("Wrapped") and the Dixie Chicks ("Travelin' Soldier"), while his wife is regarded as one of alt-country's leading ladies thanks to albums like What I Deserve, Easy and Translated From Love. They began dating in the early '90s, married in 1996, and now have four children, but before this year had never released a full-length album together.

That ended in February with Cheater's Game (Premium), a 13-song set that most assuredly plays to the couple's strengths: Robison's insightful songwriting, Willis' honeyed vocals and the low-key but electric chemistry between the two. About half the songs are Robison originals or co-writes ("Ordinary Fool," "Waterfall"), and the rest are covers of songwriters whose rugged but tenderhearted work is virtually custom-tailored to their sensibility: Hayes Carll, Don Williams, Robert Earl Keen Jr. So what took them so long?

"Well... you know... I guess it's scary to have all your eggs in one basket," says Willis, hesitating a little at first. "And also, when we met we had separate careers and never had any interest in being a duo. God, being in a band with your spouse does not sound cool.

"So it wasn't really something that we had any interest in doing," she continues. "But over the years, little by little we did more and more stuff together, and liked what we were doing together, and never felt any negative things about what we were doing together. It was just the right time."

By Robison's reckoning Cheater's Game came together in about three or four sessions that lasted two or three days apiece, and must have shook something loose all right. He says he and Willis are already about one-third of the way into a second album currently scheduled for release in April.

"I feel like we went to work and came up with a sound, and I love doing it," Robison offers. "The songs started falling out of the sky for the new project, so we're for sure going to do another one."

Cheater's Game has shored up their holiday shows, which pivot on the couple's duets of "Santa Baby" and "Baby It's Cold Outside." Now Robison says the sets include between four and six songs from the new album, plus a couple from the one due in the spring.

"I think it's just a better show," he explains. "We did some work. Before it was just kind of the few kind of wintry holiday songs, and then a few of Kelly's and a few of mine. Now it's got a whole 'nother element of these songs that we've done from the new record, and so it flows real good."

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Originally. Robison says he and Willis just wanted to play some shows together with his brother, "Bandera Bad Boy" Charlie Robison, so they booked dates at McGonigel's Mucky Duck here and Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth. They wound up inviting Charlie's wife at the time, Emily, as well as her sister Martie Maguire, then two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks and now the leaders of Court Yard Hounds. A last-minute thing became a holiday tradition.

"They kind of made it a big deal, because they made us rehearse, which we wouldn't have done otherwise," Robison laughs. "We learned some songs, and ever since then it's taken [on] a life of its own."

Those early shows led to a self-released EP that quickly became a fan favorite and was eventually released by Willis' label, Rykodisc; it's since been discontinued, but she says there should be plenty available at this year's shows: "They were sitting in there and we were like, 'God, what are we going to do with these?'" she laughs. "Now we know."

Robison talks about the holiday shows in pretty informal terms, saying "we let it find its own level," but it's been a big success for the couple. They've taken it as far as New York and Philadelphia, and will visit Washington D.C. this year as well as Austin, Gruene, Tyler, Midland and Dallas. Last year they brought the tour to Houston's House of Blues, and many venues this year are significantly larger than the Duck -- Gruene Hall, Austin's Paramount Theater, Dallas' Kessler -- but it holds some serious sentimental value for the couple. (They also performed there Thursday night.)

"It just lost something in the translation to another room," Willis says. "The Duck is our place in Houston. The people that come there, the vibe that venue has..."

Willis estimates she's been playing the small songwriters' club for at least 20 years, since she was a promising honky-tonk singer who got let go from MCA in Nashville's rush toward glossier artists like Faith Hill -- who, ironically, duetted with husband Tim McGraw on the Robison-penned No. 1 "Angry All the Time."

"During the lean times. it was a few years before I found my footing again," says Willis. "The Mucky Duck was one of these venues that kept me alive, continuing to be able to make music and not go find another job and do something else. They're a spot that I have a lot of gratitude for. It's more of a family relationship."

Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis perform at 7 and 9:30 p.m. tonight at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, mcgonigels.com. Tickets will no doubt be at a premium.


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