The Bandera Way
Kelly Willis, Bruce Robison, and the Hill Country courting method
Feels like April on this warm and sunny day, but it's late January. At a comfortable Hyde Park address, bright natural light pours in through the large windows of a house owned by the reigning couple of Austin country music, Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison.
After years of appearing on each other's albums and performing together, the pair finally releases its collaborative bow, Cheater's Game. With a nearly equal mix of covers and original compositions, the LP spotlights the two at their absolute best: Kelly with her raw silk vocals and Bruce wielding his mercury pen. When their voices join in harmony, as they will on tour, it's heaven sent.
Kelly and Bruce's lives entwine in a parallel harmony, the way they've synced their careers while raising four children. Their successes notch up as the result of hard work, not only musically, but emotionally. Few things in life take a toll on marriage like working together.
Neither of the two sugarcoat the effort involved in maintaining a relationship that walks the line between personal and professional. If there's an Ozzie and Harriet quality to their generally peaceful lifestyles, they strive to be more Johnny Cash and June Carter than George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Either way, as the song famously proclaims, it's all in the game.
Scenes From a Marriage, Part I
Bruce Robison settles into a chair in the living room, its off-white walls and spare decor peaceful and orderly. Despite the affable, slightly rumpled air of an absentminded college professor, there's nothing forgetful about the man who's written hits for George Strait, the Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, and dozens of others.
After moving here from their native Bandera in the late Eighties, Bruce and his older brother Charlie formed the Weepers, which gigged around the roots-rock and country scenes before disbanding. Bruce immediately delved into songwriting and performing, Charlie went for performing and songwriting. Both continue.
Seated on the couch opposite Bruce, Kelly Willis glows with a daylight beauty that requires no artful makeup, forgiving shadows, or transformative darkness to enhance. She's made of willowy grace, with strawberry blonde hair framing pastel eyes and the impossibly fresh ivory skin that crowned her "MCA's video girl" for three albums in the early Nineties. That's the Kelly Willis that Bruce Robison first saw.
She'd moved here at 18, an Army brat fresh out of high school, with a band known to its former Washington, D.C., roots scene as rockabilly darlings Kelly Willis & the Fireballs. Once here, she married bandmate/drummer Mas Palermo and started Radio Ranch with Mike Hardwick, David Murray, and Michael Foreman. Neither Radio Ranch nor the marriage lasted, and by the early Nineties, Willis found herself single again.
"We had mutual friends," she explains. "The way I remember it, one night we were on top of the roof of the house across from Shady Grove. We started playing Roy Orbison songs. We got so caught up in it that everyone around us had gotten bored and left. We were still singing our little songs together.
"We started dating."
Bruce protests slightly.
"I thought she was out of my league at that point. So it was a surprise to me. I had to get serious."
How did he get ... er, on base?
"The Bandera way. I got her drunk," he replies, poker-faced. "Simple as that. It's the Hill Country courting method."
"Our kids laugh about it," he adds. "They know the story. I pursued her for years after that. We went together a couple times."
"He was mean to me, too!" giggles Kelly, swatting playfully at the air between them.
"We broke up a couple of times," acknowledges Bruce as he pantomimes fending her off. Then he looks at her seriously. "It was five years before we got married?"
"Yes, 1996. And part of the way you won me over was taking me to Bandera," she grins. "I fell in love with that – his personality being from that place.
"Whenever you see people who are trying to sell 'happily married,' that's a recipe for disaster," she continues. "This record we can do as long as we know we're not trying to present this perfect picture. That's too much pressure. That was my only hesitation about going in and making a record with Bruce. We've got to preserve our relationship, and we don't want to make that any harder than it already is.
"There's a tendency to make that image [of marriage] more than it is," she points out, plucking the sleeve of her grass green sweater and moving it up her slender arm. "When you're out there performing or at the merch table shaking hands, it's smiley time. And I sometimes feel like we're just doing the, 'Hey, isn't this great? We're just happy!' thing."
Bruce nods: "And presenting that as an identity. Then you start trying to figure out what that identity is. We have a good time with the Christmas shows, and I'm the last person in the world who would have a Christmas show. I'm a very cynical person, but it's taken on a life of its own because we're not presenting 'Chestnuts' or the Bing Crosby Christmas.
"It's just us."
Scenes From a Marriage, Part II
Kelly sings and Bruce writes. Kelly often writes and Bruce often sings. Yet Cheater's Game sounds more curated than casually assembled. Six of the songs are covers, seven are written or co-written by Bruce.
His songwriting remains equal parts respect for the craft and love of tradition. His melodies sound like radio songs, but his lyrics reach deeper while staying honest to emotion, as in his oft-covered "Angry All the Time."
You ain't the only one who feels like this world's left you far behind
I don't know why you gotta be angry all the time
No wonder his wife's such a fan. He, in turn, follows everyone from Hayes Carll to Willie Nelson.
"The song on Cheater's Game, 'We're All the Way,' that's a notion I have a hard time writing about," admits Bruce. "I don't have happy songs like that. The tradition I come from is writing very sad songs. And I love that song, as a fan. My buddy Monte [Warden], he writes happy songs."
Kelly shifts on the couch.
"'We're All the Way' isn't a purely happy song," she says.
"No," agrees Bruce, "but it's inherently positive."
He's right. Don Williams' 'We're All the Way' contains the following cautionary that Bruce and Kelly express in other ways.
Don't put words between us we shouldn't say
And don't be acting halfway
When you know we're all the way
In other words, accept the music and don't overthink the relationship.
"I do think there's something [special] about married people making music together," muses Kelly. "Similar to siblings, when there's history between two people – good stuff and bad stuff, love and hate, 'You're the person pulling me up, you're also the person pushing me down.'
"There's a dynamic to that. It's real."
"That's what I love about country music," offers Bruce. "And I do hope people see it that way [with us]. It has all that emotion, so when you sing in harmony, it's wonderful. It made sense and was so much fun that the music sprang from us, from our history and our present. Everything we've done before and how well we know each other, that's the interesting thing.
"If people like the music, that will be why."
Scenes From a Marriage, Part III
His words agree with her. That's why she's protective of their image as a couple. Her experiences with major labels as a young twentysomething maintain their lessons.
"I had more success with video than radio," she notes wryly. "At the time, video was new, and I suppose I was MCA's video girl. They were willing to spend lots of money, and that's where most people heard my songs because no one was playing them on the radio.
"They were going for this glamorous image and I was worried about that. For 'The Heart That Love Forgot,' there was a rich backstory you had to have read. There's tons of fun to having people do your hair and makeup, making you look better than you really do, but I remember feeling really conflicted.
"I wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted to be part of that group of people making good country music at the time. And playing with Bruce is the most fun I've ever had onstage. Whatever nerves I have disappear. It's relaxed, I'm sharing the load. Bruce's music has always been a little more rollicking, more honky-tonk than mine."
"Nobody ever calls my music 'more fun,'" scoffs Bruce playfully. "Could be a problem with your music if mine is 'more fun' than yours!"
"You know that it is, though," retorts Kelly. "You do have those depressing, intense songs, but you also know how to make people have a good time. Make them dance."
"I attempted to sell out in Nashville!" exclaims Bruce. "There were no takers. 'I'm gonna make my deal to be that antidote to whatever they're being sold.' That's the way I looked at it, to present my songs as something a little different. Because when you're there, songs really sound alike, sound the same. They're all going for the radio.
"I figured out early on that wasn't my talent at all. That I would be better off trying to show the reason for recording Texas songwriters."
"People in Nashville were fans of Bruce's, and they want him to write them a song," injects Kelly. "It just never really worked in that regard. Bruce ended up making his records, and they would cut songs from his records."
She turns with a doting smile to face her husband.
"That was your best calling card. To make your own record."
Scenes From a Marriage, Part IV
After an acclaimed trio of MCA Records – 1990's Well Travelled Love, 1991's Bang Bang, and 1993's self-titled release – Kelly Willis stepped off until 1999. That album, What I Deserve, bespoke its title by making clear she knew what she wanted. After 2002's Easy, fans waited five years for Translated From Love, her best recording since her MCA tenure. Cheater's Game now assumes that role.
Bruce had always called upon Kelly for backup vocals and now as his wife, his partner in life, she appeared on his 1998 CD Wrapped, whose third track was a song of his called "Angry All the Time." That's the tune that Tim McGraw and Faith Hill took to No. 1. Wrapped also featured a song co-written with Monte Warden, "Desperately."
In one of those scenes that sounds torn from a Hollywood script, Monte and his wife, Nashville publisher Brandi Warden, joined Robison for Kelly's birthday in 2003 (revisit "With a Bullet," Apr. 4, 2004).
"I have a silly question," Brandi ventured over the main course. "How many times has 'Desperately' been pitched to George Strait?"
"I have a sillier answer," replied Bruce. "None."
"Desperately," as sung by George Strait, peaked at No. 6 in 2004.
The star family Robison also includes sister Robyn Ludwick, and who can forget Charlie in 1999 marrying Emily Erwin of the Dixie Chicks, the bestselling group in country music? Of course, all that glitters isn't gold and platinum records; Natalie Maines' comments on President Bush blacklisted the Dixie Chicks, while Erwin and Robison divorced in 2008.
For a couple, a divorce among friends and family always rocks the boat. What about us, do we still love, cherish, and respect one another? Are we "all the way"? Performing together keeps Kelly and Bruce strong and connected. That and a healthy respect for the other's gifts, particularly Bruce, who's enamored of his wife's singing.
"I'm so jealous! I see it as such a gift from God. I love voices. Some are jazzier, timeless, like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. But these voices like Emmylou, Dolly, and Kelly, it's hard to put your finger on. Some of them do the hiccupy thing. Some do a lilt thing. Some have a whole different feel."
What makes a good country vocalist? Bruce looks baffled.
"Is it through the nose? A little bit of twang? It's just there with Kelly. For us, that's our Hendrix guitar – Kelly's voice. So, I decided to look far and wide for songs that were completely different. We'd get a song and sing it and know whether it was going to work or not.
"I've always done outside songs. Kelly, too. This was the easier way to look for outside songs, because the music would choose it. Kelly spent less time looking for songs."
Bruce looks to her for approval. "I can say that, right?"
"Yes," she nods.
"So, I was looking for songs, and it's hard to find songs for her. It's mostly about her voice. Like Willie says, you just know it when you hear it."
Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison nestle into the Cactus Cafe on Friday, Feb. 22, then load into the Continental Club the next night.