Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis

Cheater's Game

Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis photo courtesy of Sacks & Co. Nashville.

"I don’t know if it was ever some big idea," says Kelly Willis with a musical laugh. "It’s just something we’ve always sort of done. Our Christmas shows were always so fun, and obviously we’ve always been part of each other’s records. But we’re also our own people. We’ve always been very careful about not losing sight of that. We didn’t want to get lost in a duo because we are so different, and we’ve each worked so hard to establish our own careers."

The thing about chemistry, though, is it can’t be denied. To hear them sing together is to understand opposite attraction, spontaneous combustion and a whole lotta life lived together. Robison and Willis—two decades in—know the way the other leans almost without talking.

And that telekinetic thrust is what makes Cheater’s Game, a collection of songs that hurt, cheat, doubt, lust and hold on, so very delicious. Whether it’s the busted samba refiguring of Dave Alvin’s "Border Radio" that turns up the woman’s reality from the Blasters’ original, Don Williams’ truth in what’s really going on "We’re All The Way" or the Beatles-esque shuffling pluck of sweeping close harmonies on Robison’s own "But I Do," there’s 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 sings’em. Some work, some don’t. And some, well, something just happens! Those are the ones we keep."

For all their differences musically—Willlis explains, "I’m more rockabilly/60s, and he’s got that ‘70s Texas songwriter thing"—they’re both artists deeply rooted in the hard country, yet deeply progressive music scene that’s 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 X’s roots-steeped punks John Doe and Exene Cervenka. That merging of songs and life, knowing and dreaming adds depth and frenzy to the music.

"I’d never suggest we were in any of their leagues," Willis says. "But seeing them, I do feel a kinship. Making music with that person you’re 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. It’s a lot just being in show business. Then you’re a couple and trying to do that. Of course there’s friction and disappointment along the way. But it makes everything more, and better."

You can hear the palpable joy on heartbreakers like Dickie Lee’s classic "9,999,999," as well as Robison’s sultry stakes are high "Cheater’s Game" and the languidly romantic "Waterfall," with Willis’ red velvet voice angsting for the missing lover intertwined with Robison’s 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.