Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis have been married for 20 years and have four children, but their musical careers have largely been solo affairs. Oh, sure, they've contributed to each other's albums, but for the most part Willis has earned acclaim as a singer who can deliver rockabilly attitude or honky-tonk heartbreak in equal measure, while Robison has excelled as a producer and songwriter, with artists such as George Strait ("Desperately"), Tim McGraw ("Angry All the Time") and the Dixie Chicks ("Travelin' Soldier") scoring hits with his tunes.
But in quick succession, Robison and Willis have put out back-to-back duo albums, "Cheater's Game" (2013) and the recent "Our Year" (Premium). Where Robison's songs dominated the first album, the second provides a window into the couple's wide-ranging influences as filtered through classic harmonies in the country tradition of power couples from the past: Johnny Cash and June Carter, Tammy Wynette and George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. They cover songs written by a seemingly mismatched menagerie of influences and peers: the Zombies, T-Bone Burnett, Tom T. Hall, Walter Hyatt.
"Kelly has more experience as a stylist, as someone who can take another writer's song and make it her own, whereas I relate to the songwriters more," Robison says. "It's our sound that connects all those influences. We started playing the Zombies song ('This Will Be Our Year') in this holiday show that Kelly and I do every year (in their home base of Austin, Texas). We try to find songs that aren't traditional that still fit the theme. 'Our Year' and (Hyatt's) 'Motor City Man' are really great songs that aren't love songs. I write ridiculously sad songs, but to mix it up, we like to look to people who can write about topics that we don't normally address in our own songs."
Several of the covers have a deeply personal connection. Hall's "Harper Valley P.T.A." made the cut because Willis once surprised Robison with a version of it at one of their shows. She explained on the couple's Web site that it was in part inspired by the couple's differences as artists.
"One area that still chafes is the set list," she wrote. "I like to make a plan and stick with it. So I rarely veer off the set list. Bruce throws caution to the wind." One night Robison fielded a request from the audience to perform Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" and "just to be a showoff (I'm guessing) he played it and knew every word and killed it. In a really good way. Crowd goes wild. I not only never do that kind of thing, I sometimes can't remember how my own songs go."
But Willis turned the tables at a subsequent show by dropping "Harper Valley P.T.A." into the set unannounced, after learning it in secret. The "Gotcha!" moment stuck, and became a permanent part of the couple's set list and the new album.
"I really can be a jerk sometimes," Robison says with a laugh. "I think I was being one at that moment (when he performed 'Bobby McGee'). I know she doesn't like singing those (impromptu) songs on stage, but I plowed into 'Bobby McGee' anyway. It was fair that she was getting me back. Somebody shot a video of it and you could see me completely getting thrown off my feet. I couldn't put in my mind how it happened — and it was fun."
He says working full-time with his wife required both to make some compromises. "We did collaborate a lot in the past, but whosever project it was, that person was in control," Robison says. "They did it nicely, but it was, 'You sing here,' 'I don't want this there.' Now it's Bruce and Kelly and it's a band. I've always produced my own stuff and never had a band that I had to defer to. This time we scraped together money to find a real producer (Brad Jones) so I could focus on my job: songwriting and playing and arranging."
There was another revelation as well: Robison finally got to be a bandmate of someone he calls "one of the great singers of our time, or any time. I was a fan of Kelly's before we started dating, and now it's like Hendrix's guitar is in our band. You want sounds that will set you apart, and she provides that. You can't hide her voice. It will mix itself up front, and sing melody rather than harmony. You get a new appreciation of how powerful that is."
Despite the successful two-year run in which the couple finds itself, Robison says the plan is for both to return to their solo careers. "When we did 'Cheater's Game,' I looked at couples like Waylon and Jessi, Johnny and June and how much they worked together," he says. "But they still kept that separation of their own identity. You have to respect the family boundaries. I've been through this with my brother (singer-songwriter Charlie Robison) already. I felt overshadowed by him because he's such a powerful personality and I was more quiet. You take pride in your family's accomplishments, and you have to let them do their own thing."
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St.
Tickets: $22, $25, $30; citywinery.com
Other recommended shows
FitzGerald's American Music Festival: Since 1981, the venerable Berwyn roadhouse has championed all things Americana, from zydeco and blues to rock 'n' roll and country during its four-day, multi-stage holiday celebration. All those genres will be well-represented this year, with performances by Shemekia Copeland, CJ Chenier, the Holmes Brothers, the Bottle Rockets and Billy Joe Shaver, among others. Headliners include Alejandro Escovedo, Marcia Ball, Joe Ely and Reckless Kelly, plus there's an all-star tribute to the late, great Lowell George of Little Feat. 5 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 1:30 p.m. July 4-5 at FitzGerald's, 6615 W. Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn. $30 per day or $100 four-day pass; fitzgeraldsnightclub.com
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).
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