Back in the fall of 1998, a package show called "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"—a tour pairing husband-and-wife Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis with Richard Buckner— stopped at The ArtsCenter. At one point, Willis referred to Robison as "my current husband," which led to a few chuckles in the audience. We knew what she meant (she'd been married once before), but it sounded as if Robison were still in the tryout phase.
Robison has obviously passed the audition. He and Willis have been married for 11 years now and have four kids, including a set of twins. However, domestic bliss doesn't necessarily translate into togetherness on the road for touring musicians. "We can't fit the band and our family on the bus, so the four kids stay home with one of us," explains Willis. "Sometimes we will take just one child for special time with Mom or Dad, while the other three stay home."
Robison points out that while he and Willis often record together, they really aren't a duo act, which makes it easier to keep touring as two bands. "We try to find the right way to collaborate. It's always a process we're trying to figure out," he says, adding with a laugh, "but we need her out there working."
Willis has had more success with her records and tours, and it's fair to say that Robison's words are better known than he is. The Dixie Chicks and Tim McGraw had huge hits with Robison's "Travelin' Soldier" and "Angry All the Time," respectively, and George Strait recently took "Wrapped" to the top of the country chart. But Robison also recorded all three songs. "I'd like for my records to be more widely known," he offers. "But I am a songwriter for a living. I really like being part of the tradition of the professional songwriter, and that fits me."
Seven examples of a pro at work can be found on Robison's new EP, It Came from San Antonio, a showcase of his versatility as a writer and a musician. The title track is a double nod to the Sir Douglas Quintet, celebrating both the renegade spirit that led them to pretend to be a British Invasion band and the hybrid abandon of their sound. Elsewhere, it's easy to imagine, say, Gary Allan taking on "When It Rains," and "Lifeline," with its pop-roots glow, could be another winner for sister-in-law Emily Robison and her fellow Chicks.
And "23A," perhaps slightly thumped-up for the occasion, would fit in nicely on a future Kelly Willis album. In addition to being a talented songwriter in her own right, Willis remains one of the country and roots universe's best interpreters. "If I'm going to cover a song people have heard, then I want it to be something I can bring a different perspective to than the original," she says. "Otherwise, why bother?" To that end, Willis has put her own stamp on songs by Nick Drake, Paul Westerberg, the much-missed Kirsty MacColl, Adam Green, Tom T. Hall (her take on "That's How I Got to Memphis" gets my vote as the definitive version) and Iggy Pop. Her take on his "Success" is the rollicking centerpiece of her brand new Translated from Love.
Translated is chock full of crafty arrangements, but it's still Willis' voice that holds court, an instrument that No Depression's Roy Kasten describes as having "that instant force of beauty." When asked whether there are any voices that for her display that instant force of beauty, she replies, "Walter Hyatt does that for me. Billie Holiday. Maria McKee. Some of my favorite singers would be Iris Dement, Ricky Skaggs, Doris Day and, of course, Bruce Robison."
Hey, score one for the current husband.
Bruce Robison is at The ArtsCenter Sunday, Aug. 12. The show starts at 7 p.m., and tickets are $12. Here's hoping that you saw Kelly Willis at Cat's Cradle July 28, too.