Music Interviews
5:01 pm
Sun March 24, 2013

Partners In Life, Two Country Singers Finally Meet In The Studio

Originally published on Sun March 24, 2013 7:07 pm

Johnny and June, George and Tammy, Conway and Loretta, Gram and Emmylou: Country music has a long tradition of co-ed duet partners, and it's about to welcome one more pair. Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison both had blossoming solo careers when they wed back in 1996, but they haven't recorded a full album together — until now. Their first LP as collaborators is called Cheater's Game, and they discuss it here with weekend on All Things Considered guest host Don Gonyea.


Interview Highlights

On the lack of classic male/female cover songs on the album

Robison: "We've had a couple of people that said they were surprised or perhaps happy that we didn't just go with some of the classic duets that we all know and love. Honestly, we didn't even consider that approach to it. I was just gonna look for the best songs. Didn't matter where they came from. We just looked for these songs that felt good when we sang them."

Bruce and Kelly on the presence of a rare instrument on a country album, a tuba

Robison: "I think we were going for The Band ... on that track a little bit. We had a really amazing producer named Brad Jones who was in there as a partner with us. I don't think either one of us was arguing for tuba on our record, but that was his idea. And it was a good one."

Willis: "Yes, we were waiting to see how we felt about the tuba. Turned out, we really liked it!"

On having 4 kids in the span of 5 years:

Willis: "Stupidest thing we've ever done! I mean, it's great. I love those kids. But having them four in five years, that was kinda intense ... We've shortened the way we tour. We have to do weekends ... Last night our 7-year old started crying and said, 'You're never home on the holidays!' And that was just the biggest lie — we're home for every single holiday. But he goes, 'It's just one of the bad things about being famous, I guess!' "

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Once again, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JACKSON")

JOHNNY CASH AND JUNE CASH: (Singing) We got married in a fever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'RE NOT THE JET SET")

GEORGE JONES AND TAMMY WYNETTE: (Singing) No, we're not the jet set.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER THE FIRE IS GONE")

CONWAY TWITTY AND LORETTA LYNN: (Singing) After the fire is gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE HURTS")

GRAM PARSONS: (Singing) Love hurts.

GONYEA: Johnny and June, George and Tammy, Conway and Loretta, Gram and Emmylou, just a few of country music's iconic male/female duet partners. Well, let's add a new one: Kelly and Bruce.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMIN'")

KELLY WILLIS AND BRUCE ROBISON: (Singing) Dreaming, oh, you got me dreaming.

GONYEA: That's Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison. They both had blossoming solo careers when they got married back in 1996, but they hadn't recorded a full album together until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMIN'")

ROBISON: (Singing) I'm still hanging on, hoping you might show. I don't want to stop, and I can't let go.

GONYEA: The new album by Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison is called "Cheater's Game." I caught up with them as they rolled through San Antonio on their current tour. Early in their courtship, they tried their best to maintain separate careers - different booking agents, different touring schedules.

BRUCE ROBISON: We were pretty careful of that and found a lot of ways to collaborate without...

KELLY WILLIS: Yeah.

ROBISON: ...crossing this line that we have now.

WILLIS: Yeah. As time went on, I think there was a little more pressure for us to perform together. And we would, in small ways, you know, just sit in with each other at a show or something. And it was fun, but we didn't really think about, you know, merging our recording careers or something. That had always been separate. So little by little, over the years, as we did more and more together, it started to make more sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATERFALL")

ROBISON: (Singing) Pour me a waterfall and I'll drink it down and throw them old memories around. I know I'm still in love with you, but you just been gone for too long.

GONYEA: So country music has this long, rich history of male/female duets.

ROBISON: Sure.

GONYEA: Did any of that history kind of enter into your songwriting on this collection?

ROBISON: We got a couple of people that said they were surprised or perhaps happy that we didn't just go with some of the classic country duets that we all know and love. And in hindsight - and honestly, we didn't even consider that approach to it. I was just going to look for the best songs. Didn't matter where they came from. We just looked for these songs that felt good when we sang them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9,999,999 TEARS")

ROBISON: (Singing) I got 9,999,999 tears to go.

GONYEA: So half of this album is cover songs, and there's a song called "9,999,999 Tears" written by Razzy Bailey that comes from a certain time and place in country music radio. Kelly, what about that song?

WILLIS: Bruce grew up around here near San Antonio, Texas, and that - so that song was on the radio everywhere, but I had never heard it.

ROBISON: Yeah. I remember when it was a hit. It was a guy named Dickey Lee. He was a great writer, but he didn't write that song. And so we went through bushels of songs to try and get to these.

WILLIS: What I liked about it, though, is I thought it really kind of merged our two worlds of music together perfectly because it kind of has a little bit of a rockabilly, country sound to it that was the stuff that drew me in to country music. And it also had that '70s feel of country music that kind of is what Bruce was kind of raised in. So I thought that it was cool that it was what a Bruce and Kelly song might sound like.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9,999,999 TEARS")

ROBISON: (Singing) I can't believe you would want somebody else and no one to take my place.

WILLIS: (Singer) At least that's what I keep telling myself, as the tears fall down my face.

ROBISON: (Singing) I got 9,999,999 tears to go.

GONYEA: So I'm speaking with Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison. Their new album is called "Cheater's Game." So you guys are both on Twitter, and sometimes you...

WILLIS: I'm more on Twitter than Bruce.

ROBISON: Well...

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: OK, I've got the count. Kelly, you have tweeted 3,833 times. Bruce, 156.

ROBISON: Oh, no, don't tell me mine.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIS: A hundred and fifty-six?

ROBISON: And 100 of them were mistakes, where I punched the wrong button, probably. I keep saying you got to be good at it or else it's just phony-baloney. So I haven't figured out how to do that. Kelly's amazing at it, and so we're a good pair in that way too. Kelly, you know, she takes care of our social media situation.

GONYEA: Kind of makes you wonder what George and Tammy might have done with Twitter.

ROBISON: Exactly.

WILLIS: I wonder.

ROBISON: Exactly. You wouldn't have wanted George tweeting all the time, would you? (Unintelligible)

WILLIS: No. I would have loved to hear Tammy tweeting now.

ROBISON: I know.

WILLIS: She'd reveal all that stuff about George and...

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: Must follow.

WILLIS: Yes.

ROBISON: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT I DO")

ROBISON: (Singing) (Unintelligible) baby life goes on and on and on. Shouldn't be missing you, but I do.

GONYEA: This is kind of a random question. Do I hear a tuba on some of these songs?

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIS: You do. Yeah. Good ear.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBISON: I think we were going for the band, as in the band, on that track a little bit. We had a really amazing producer named Brad Jones who was in there as a partner with us. And the tuba - I don't think either one of us were arguing for tuba on our record, but that was his idea. And it was a good one.

WILLIS: Yes. We were waiting to see how we felt about the tuba.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIS: Turned out we really liked it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT I DO")

GONYEA: So the two of you have had four kids. You had four kids in five years, is that right?

WILLIS: We did. It was stupid.

ROBISON: Is that right? Well...

WILLIS: Stupidest thing we've ever done. I mean, it's great. I love those kids. But having them all four in five years, that was kind of intense.

GONYEA: And their age range now?

WILLIS: The oldest is 12, the twins turn 10 this week, and the youngest is 7.

GONYEA: Musicians tour. What does that do to the career of a touring musician?

WILLIS: Yeah, it complicates it a lot. We've shortened the way we tour. We have to do weekends. Now, when we do solo stuff, it's easier because one will stay home when the other goes out. But since it's the two of us together, we have to do weekends. So...

GONYEA: Do they appreciate what you guys do and how different your lives are from the other parents at school?

WILLIS: I think so. I think the older they get, the more they kind of notice that it's different. Last night, our 7-year-old started crying and said: You're never home on the holidays. And that was just the biggest lie.

ROBISON: Right.

WILLIS: We're home for every single holiday. But he goes: It's just one of the bad things about being famous, I guess, and that just made me laugh.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO ROLL")

ROBISON: (Singing) My mama had me in a sleeper of a diesel, she never heard about a cradle by the fireside, her and daddy taking turns behind the steering wheel, listening to the winging wind singing me a lullaby.

GONYEA: That's Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, a married couple, released their first ever musical collaboration, a full CD called "Cheater's Game." If you're curious, you can sample a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. Kelly, Bruce, thank you, guys, both so much.

WILLIS: Thank you.

ROBISON: Thank you, Don.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO ROLL")

ROBISON: (Singing) (Unintelligible) my way, two-lane, four-lane, (unintelligible) heavy rain listen to the DJ, rollin' down the road, oh, yeah, I was born to roll.

ROBISON: (Singing) My daddy taught me how to drive when I was... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.