"I dont know if it was ever some big idea," says Kelly Willis with a musical laugh. "Its just something weve always sort of done. Our Christmas shows were always so fun, and obviously weve always been part of each others records. But were also our own people. Weve always been very careful about not losing sight of that. We didnt want to get lost in a duo because we are so different, and weve each worked so hard to establish our own careers."
The thing about chemistry, though, is it cant be denied. To hear them sing together is to understand opposite attraction, spontaneous combustion and a whole lotta life lived together. Robison and Willistwo decades inknow the way the other leans almost without talking.
And that telekinetic thrust is what makes Cheaters Game, a collection of songs that hurt, cheat, doubt, lust and hold on, so very delicious. Whether its the busted samba refiguring of Dave Alvins "Border Radio" that turns up the womans reality from the Blasters original, Don Williams truth in whats really going on "Were All The Way" or the Beatles-esque shuffling pluck of sweeping close harmonies on Robisons own "But I Do," theres complexity in the neon and the heartbreak, as much said in the tone these notes are sung with as the actual lyrics or what the instrumental breaks evoke.
"It was a lot of things," Robison says. "Crazy, sexy, cool, terrifying. We both know how to make records, have takes on how this works. But together that all goes out the window. This is bringing in 30 songs and sitting with her, then Kelly just singsem. Some work, some dont. And some, well, something just happens! Those are the ones we keep."
For all their differences musicallyWilllis explains, "Im more rockabilly/60s, and hes got that 70s Texas songwriter thing"theyre both artists deeply rooted in the hard country, yet deeply progressive music scene thats Texas post-Bob Wills. A place long on big emotions, serious Saturday nights, long necks, roadhouses, big hair, roughnecks and tender hearted women, Texas Robison and Willis bridge the gaps and build a refuge for the Venus/Mars continuum that is men and women high on hormones and short on guilt, not to mention the craggy aftermath of same.
They also follow in the tradition of couples making kinetic music of all stripes. Not just Johnny and June and Tammy and George, Waylon and Jesse or even Conway and Loretta, but also Xs roots-steeped punks John Doe and Exene Cervenka. That merging of songs and life, knowing and dreaming adds depth and frenzy to the music.
"Id never suggest we were in any of their leagues," Willis says. "But seeing them, I do feel a kinship. Making music with that person youre closest to in the world, who understands what this is? Bruce and I have been together since 1991, and a lot has happened to us over all that time. Its a lot just being in show business. Then youre a couple and trying to do that. Of course theres friction and disappointment along the way. But it makes everything more, and better."
You can hear the palpable joy on heartbreakers like Dickie Lees classic "9,999,999," as well as Robisons sultry stakes are high "Cheaters Game" and the languidly romantic "Waterfall," with Willis red velvet voice angsting for the missing lover intertwined with Robisons basic blond wood declarations. The chemistry between the pair ignites these songs, giving them a third dimension that makes 1+1 something closer to 5.