Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis, ‘Cheater’s Game’ Fueled by Love, ‘Star Trek’ and the Fonz (Exclusive Interview)
Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis have been independent solo artists, each making their own way in the musical world since the 1990s. Bruce’s first solo self-titled effort arrived in 1996, and Kelly released her debut, Well Traveled Love, in 1990. The couple married in 1996 and welcomed the first of four children in 2001. Meanwhile, both continued to pursue separate musical paths, while making appearances on each other’s records from time to time. One such collaboration, “Angry All the Time,” from Bruce’s album Wrapped, became a hit duet for another married couple, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Bruce’s songwriting has also led to other sizable country hits for George Strait (“Wrapped) and the Dixie Chicks (“Travelin’ Soldier”), among others. (Bruce’s brother Charlie, also an acclaimed singer-songwriter, is the ex-husband of the Chicks’ Emily Robison.)
While Kelly took somewhat of a hiatus once she gave birth to twin sons in 2003, and a daughter in 2006, both she and her husband continued to record and perform, yet they had never done an album’s worth of duets together, until now. The recently-released Cheater’s Game is a traditional country bonanza, comprised of both original tunes and smartly-chosen covers. The Boot sat down with Bruce and Kelly to talk about how they chose material for the record, what they’ve had to overcome to work together on stage and how Kelly’s Twitter habit uncovered one of her husband’s earliest compositions: a fan letter he penned to a 1970s TV icon.
How did the two of you decide now was the best time to do a duets record?
Bruce: We were kicking around the idea, then we decided we were going to go back out and do some shows. We just took a couple of guys with us, a standup bass player and a steel player. We were knocked out by playing in an intimate situation. We have this nice group of fans at different places across the country. We end up having a rapport with the crowd and the songs are really getting across there. The drums and bass are not drowning us out. For me, it’s where we came up with the sound of this recording. We focused on our voices and presenting the songs. That’s how we went about looking for the songs. It was like getting a fresh, new lease on life.
Kelly: We weren’t interested in being a duo in any way. We were just a couple and just interested in having our relationship work. We would sing on each other’s stuff, and I would record his songs, but it was a long time before it really felt like the time was right to do that.
What made you decide to do an album that was half originals and half covers?
Kelly: I’ve always done that, so it wasn’t new for me. Bruce usually does his own songs.
Bruce: My heroes always did other songs on their records. When we decided to do this record, I remember thinking, “I’m going to find the best songs I can find, no matter where they come from.” I had a ton of songs that we went through of mine. The singing is definitely what chose those songs.
Kelly: It’s fun to be able to take the focus off yourself so much when you’re trying to create a record and you have these other things that you get to play with and look at. One of them was our vocals together. It’s not so much what story do I want to tell right now but does this hum, does this have the magic in our sound.
Do you naturally fall into who’s going to sing the melody and who’ll do harmony?
Bruce: I have almost no training and I love harmony singing. I feel like I’m pretty good at it but I have no idea what I’m doing!
Kelly: We’ve been singing long enough together where we really do know what the other one’s going to do.
Kelly: [laughs] That’s what our kids said, “You should just call it 10 million”!
Bruce: Round it up. [laughs]
Speaking of your kids, your oldest is 12, your twins turn 10 this month, and the youngest is seven. What kind of things are they listening to? Do they get into your songs at all or do they think your music is uncool?
Kelly: They’re totally into Top 40 pop radio.
Bruce: They’ll get into our songs. We don’t listen to them all the time, but right after we record them and mix them, we’ll be playing them around. It’s really fun because they get into them. Then they fall away.
Kelly: I’ll hear them playing video games and one of them will start singing the chorus to one of our songs. They might pretend or tease a little bit … but it’s just kind of a fun back and forth with them. I don’t think that they think that it’s uncool. I don’t think that they think too much about it, really. We don’t bring them to a whole lot of our shows, because we play so late. We bring them to a few things, though and they don’t act like they’re super crazy impressed with us!
Bruce: They think that Uncle Charlie and Aunt Emily are way more famous than us. So we’re just like the country cousins. “Why can’t y’all be successful like them? How come y’all aren’t rich?” [laughs]
Do you think they’ll want to follow in your footsteps with music careers?
Kelly: It’s hard to say. They do all play the piano. One of our sons plays the ukulele. They do have some interest but I don’t see one of them taking off with a huge passion for it yet. We’re just going to let that happen naturally if it happens.
You have such a musical extended family. Do you all get together and play or play music at family gatherings?
Bruce: That has never been one of our things. Me and Kelly, Charlie and Emily and Martie [Maguire, Emily’s sister and fellow Dixie Chicks member], 10-15 years ago we were all working so hard, making records. Everybody was so focused and everybody was traveling. That sort of set the tone. It was never the sort of thing where we were sitting together on the back porch playing music.
Kelly: But we recently did one with your brother and your sister, in Luckenbach, [Texas]. We played the Robison Family Thanksgiving show. That was fun. We don’t just show up at each other’s houses with a guitar, though.
Bruce: That wasn’t the family vibe because we didn’t come from pickers.
Kelly, you were semi-retired after the twins came along. Was there ever a time you thought about just giving up touring all together?
Kelly: There were a couple of times that I tried to just quit, but then I realized it was my only link to sanity. I was thinking that it would make me more sane to not have that element to worry about, and to just focus on those babies. Then I realized I needed to have that, so I found a way to rearrange and make it happen.
You’ve lived in Austin a long time now. Do you get recognized a lot when you’re out with the family?
Kelly: We’re all over that town, with our kids, and we’ll get a lot of people who’ll come up and say stuff. And then people who have no idea who you are. It’s a big enough town now, it doesn’t have that small town thing happening anymore. It’s funny, we’re just at that point where you never know if people are going to know about you. One of the most common interactions I have with people is one person will come up to me with another person, convincing that person that they should be very excited, that I’m very famous. It’s exciting and incredibly humbling at the same time. One person loves me and one has never heard of me!
Kelly, you’re pretty active on Twitter and you recently tweeted about an experience you had with torturous pop music …
Kelly: I was in the Justice [girl’s clothing] store with my daughter and they were playing this girl pop music and it was just going over and over and I just wanted to get out of there! It was just all sort of torturous. My daughter is nine and she’s just getting into One Direction or whatever that band is, so I get the feeling we’re about to hear a lot of it.
Kelly: I’m a big “Star Trek” fan. My family watched “Star Trek” when I was growing up. I have very fond, affectionate feelings about it and have been a big fan and pulled Bruce into that world kicking and screaming. I never had the “Star Wars” thing going, which I think was more of a young boy kind of thing. And now they want to steal our guy, but that’s OK. [laughs]
And Bruce, Kelly tweeted that when you were a youngster, you wrote a fan letter to the Fonz, of “Happy Days” fame. Is this true?
Bruce: I did indeed, and I’d like to think it was the Fonz who wrote me back months later. I’m sure it was an underling at ABC. But it was in the heyday of “Happy Days.” Somebody at my school bought this book that had the addresses of all the celebrities. I did get a response and I’ll leave it at that. But I will tell you that everything I’ve done since then has been in response to that letter and what that letter told me to do.
Kelly: He fueled your whole creative drive.
Bruce: I actually write a lot of Kelly’s funnier Twitter stuff. Because I don’t tweet. [But] I’ll tell her, “You ought to say this … ”
Is there a married couple the two of you admire or look up to?
Kelly: I always want to be careful of not selling happily-married. When I see people doing that, I feel like there’s some big heartache coming their way. It’s too tricky to turn it into something that you do for show. I go to great pains to make sure that we’re not selling happily-married because marriage is hard enough without a whole lot of other people’s expectations on you as well.