When you speak with Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, two things are clear: they have a deep love for one another and a profound respect for each other’s talents, hers as a rip-your-heart-out songstress and his as a hit songwriter.
After 16 years of marriage, managing two separate careers and raising four children, the First Couple of Texas Country Music is excited to release their first full-length country music collaboration, Cheater's Game, this week — an album that has already reached No. 1 on the Americana charts.
“We’re so excited about it. It’s just so reaffirming — it’s awesome,” Willis says of the project's quick climb to the top. “It’s incredibly positive and a great way to kick off this whole project. We’re thrilled.”
Cheater's Game includes a collection of 13 true country songs, seven of which Robison wrote or co-wrote. “When we decided to do this project I decided to look wherever I needed to to find the best songs I could,” Robison explains. “We’d sit down and play them with acoustic guitar… and we just went with the ones that worked that we both liked.”
For 20 years the two have collaborated on shows and songs, but say it just recently felt right for them to record a full-length album together. “When we first met we were solo artists. We were pursuing our own goals and we [were] really not interested in being in a band together. It wasn’t even something we even thought about,” Willis explains.
“Playing together was a slow build and it finally got to a point where when we decided to focus some energy on it, what we got was open doors and yeses — it was just real easy and natural and fun.”
You can sense that "easy, natural and fun" with every song on Cheater’s Game, even the ballads. Robison chalks that great vibe up to Willis’s innate abilities as a singer, something he says he developed an even greater appreciation for while recording this record.
“I really learned, as far as the music goes, she’s got this amazing B.S. detector,” he explains. “She has an amazing kind of vision about her identity I wish I had... She is instinctively a singer and I really don’t know what that means except I can see it while she’s doing it and she knows how to take a song and present it.”
And, in return, Willis gives a lot of the credit to her husband’s songwriting abilities. “I love Bruce’s songs. I think he’s just amazing. He has this way of writing choruses that you cannot keep from singing along to. They’re really catchy and yet the lyrics are deep."
Robison says Cheater’s Game is a project unlike any he’s ever worked on — in part because it was created without a record label, and with the help of fan-funding and support through KickStarter.
“It felt like 1993 again when everything was brand new and you were putting it all together and there was that excitement of doing it for the first time,” he explains. “It was really a great feeling to open that communication with some of our most motivated fans… It was such a big kind of ego boost to have people out there kind of rooting for you and encouraging you.”
In addition to providing financial and emotional support, fans also contributed to the project’s creative process by influencing the final 13 tracks that wound up on the release. Robison and Willis played stripped down versions of the material they were considering for small audiences and took peoples’ reactions to heart.
“I love singing that way, but without a big band, it’s like being out there kinda naked," he says. “It is different but I really enjoy doing this… and most of the time that’s the best way to present them, where people can really hear every little part of them.”
Willis says with the release of the album this week, they have gigs planned most weekends between now and summer to promote the new music. I asked her how difficult it is for both she and her husband to travel with four children at home, ranging in age from seven to twelve.
“You’ve got to map out every moment because there’s so many kids with so many different things so it is a challenge,” she explains. “But I think at this point we kind of have a system worked out and we have some people that we really trust that watch the kids, so it’s gotten a little easier now that they are not babies."
The parents of four will be spending Valentine’s Day playing a gig in Massachusetts. Both say there’s nowhere they’d rather spend the occasion than singing on stage together. “There is something really positive and healing about [singing together] and so for me, a great way for us to spend Valentine's Day is to get to have a gig and play some music,” Willis says.
Robison agrees. “Getting back out there and singing is a lot easier now that we don’t have infants at home and so we’ve really been able to add a lot of fun back into this thing. So the main thing is to where you just kinda want to have some time alone and we honestly will have more of that on that day than we would back here. I’ve still gotta figure out exactly how I’m gonna go about it, but I’m sure we’ll find a way to do something special in Boston.”
Regardless of how they celebrate Valentine's Day, one thing is for sure — this husband and wife duo has found a rhythm that works for their marriage, their family and their music.