After 17 years of marriage, four children, and more than 15 solo albums between them, husband and wife Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis finally collaborated on a full-length album — 2013’s critically acclaimed Cheater’s Game. The experience was so invigorating that the duo wasted no time releasing a follow-up, Our Year, which dropped in May. With originals like “Carousel” and “Lonely for You” and covers including “Harper Valley P.T.A.” and “Motor City Man,” the couple has once again spoiled listeners with their new album.
In the new interview series “5 Minutes in Texas,” Rolling Stone Country talks to Robison about the first time he laid eyes on his wife, their decision to release another collaborative album and balancing family responsibilities while on tour.
People seem to think that just because you’re married to a singer-songwriter that it’s natural to collaborate on albums, but you and Kelly are two very independent, successful solo artists. Why did you decide to collaborate again after 2013’s Cheater’s Game?
That was me really pushing it. We had waited so long to collaborate for Cheater’s Game, but the feeling was that we had done all the hard work of putting the band together, finding our sound and knowing how it all worked. We had put in all the blood, sweat and tears — and we knew we were going to take a break from it — so we decided to go out with a bang with the new album. I’m really glad that we did, and we both feel that these two projects hang together as a moment in time.
Is Our Year a continuation of Cheater’s Game?
When we decided to make Cheater’s Game, I was like, “I’ll either write 13 of them or none of them. I don’t care which one it is.” I just wanted to record great songs. I’m hoping my songs measured up, but I’m willing to go to the mat for the other tunes on Cheater’s Game, whether it’s a Dave Alvin song or a Robert Earl Keen song or a Razzy Bailey song or a Hayes Carll song. Those are great songs, and I really feel like we brought something fresh to them. Our Year is a continuation in that regard with original songs, as well as songs like the Tom T. Hall-penned “Harper Valley P.T.A.” and the Statler Brothers’ “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You.”
Kelly learned “Harper Valley P.T.A.” in secret so she could zing you during a live show for going too far off the set list, right?
Yes. We put the little video up on YouTube of her surprising me with it at a show. After that, we had to try to record it. I think she has this gear that harkens back to — she started off as a rockabilly singer — she has this sassy kind of gear. It’s so cool. She brings it out in that song, where she puts her hand on her hip. God, I love it when she does that. After the first moment she did that song, people started hollering out from the crowd for her to keep singing it. The whole thing is Frankenstein’s monster of Seventies cool country awesomeness.
On the new album, sometimes you lead, sometimes Kelly leads and sometimes you harmonize. How do you find that balance?
I love it that the songs completely show the way. We never know how they are going to be. Some of the songs have morphed as far as who sings lead on them and who harmonizes and what key they are. I love music that has a narrative. It’s just telling that story. I see it as three different elements that come together — my voice, her voice and the harmonies. You tell the story and the three elements are what gives it the emotions. I’ve never really been part of a band before now. I was always the dictator. So this has been really fun for me.
Is this going to be the last album you record with her?
At least for now. But I never say never. We try and put our marriage first. We didn’t want to go on tour and start hating each other [laughs]. But we really did find a way to do it that was so energizing. We really created something together. When I thought we were collaborating before — when we’d do shows together — it would be like, here’s a Kelly song, here’s a Bruce song, here’s a Kelly song. But starting with Cheater’s Game, this has been like a band for me. That’s why we wanted to do another record. It was a great way to give people a different way to see us — a new look.
What’s the best part about working with your wife?
The best thing is that it fixes the worst thing: pressure. The pressure is gone. Everything is on your shoulders when you’re making a record or doing a gig or booking a tour. I’m always worried if people are going to like it or whether people are going to show up. It’s a weird thing that happens to me when working with Kelly. It doesn’t take half the pressure away, it takes all the pressure away. I feel like I don’t have to worry. Everything is going to be fine.
After playing music for 20 years, it sounds like you’ve been reinvigorated.
Yes. This was a great way for me to re-engage, especially moving into this era where it’s so difficult to put music out and have anyone pay attention to it. Once we got started getting these last two albums together, I felt like it was 1991 again. It was like when I first decided to play music. It felt brand new again. It was so exciting.
Do you remember the first time you saw Kelly?
Yes, I do. It was at the Ritz in Austin, which is now a movie theater. She was singing in a rockabilly band. I can remember walking into that building on Sixth Street and seeing her for the first time. I was blown away. I was a fan of hers before I ever knew her at all.
You have four kids together. As busy artists, how do you balance your family responsibilities?
It’s been a lot harder since we started going on tour together. That’s one of the main reasons we are taking a hiatus. It was really easy before when just one of us had a gig, the other took charge of the kids.
Both you and Kelly come from musical families. Have your kids shown any musical talents?
I can hear Kelly’s voice coming through in a couple of them, and they are taking a little bit of piano. It’s kind of hard to tell. The music business scares the hell out of me, and it seems like it was way different when I started out 20 years ago, so I would be terrified if they did become musicians. I would be like the 1950s dad, saying, “There’s no future in it. Don’t do it.” We will see. You definitely don’t get to choose those things.
You’ve written three Number One hits: “Travelin’ Soldier” for the Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw’s “Angry All the Time” and “Wrapped,” which George Strait took to the top. What’s the hardest part about writing a great song?
Wow. That’s a great question because I haven’t been able to force that. For me, it’s only happened very organically. Those were the songs that happened within the first couple of years that I started writing. You have those magical moments where you’re putting all your influences together. The hardest thing was going to Nashville and raising my profile enough to where good things happened. Those songs were the culmination of 10 years of sleeping on couches and playing in and around Nashville. It literally was 10 years — then some of the people that I knew rose through the ranks and became publishers and recoding stars and producers.
What’s on your schedule for the rest of 2014?
We’re touring for a little bit longer the next two months, and then we have a wrap party at the Continental Club at the end of August. We’re going to take a break for a couple of months and then get back into the holiday shows that Kelly and I always do.