By Richard Skanse
(LSM July/Aug 2014/vol 7 – issue 4)
Kelly Willis can’t remember the first time she ever heard “Harper Valley PTA.” “I’m sure I heard it a lot before I ever really even paid attention to it,” she admits over a glass of iced tea on the patio of Austin’s Spider House Cafe. It’s a sweltering afternoon in early June, the day before she’s due to hit the road for a week’s worth of tour dates in the Northeast with husband Bruce Robison, their four young children, and a brand Bruce & Kelly duo record, Our Year.
“It’s just one of those songs that’s been around my whole life,” she says.
Quite literally, too: Texan Jeannie C. Riley’s 1968 recording of the Tom T. Hall tune was the No. 1 country song in America the very week that Willis was born in Lawton, Okla. Years later, Willis would grow up to take on the skirt-chasing Bobby Taylor, gin-nippin’ Shirley Thompson and the rest of the “Harper Valley hypocrites” in her own ultra-confident, head- turning cover of the sly classic. She rehearsed it in secret, determined to “punk” her husband by fielding a supposedly off-the-cuff request for the song at an Austin gig over a year ago. (The audience, or at least the part of the crowd that followed Willis on Twitter, was in on the prank with her.)
Willis nailed the song that night, just as she later did in the studio. Listen to the finished cut on Our Year, and you’d swear Willis was born to sing it. But really, it was all just a lark. Asked if she’s ever had any kind of lifelong personal connection to the original, she dismisses the notion with a casual shake of her head. “Not really, no,” she admits, shrugging a little apologetically. “It’s just a fun song.”
Nevertheless, she certainly remembers another day in June, 15 years ago, when another lark led to her meeting the song’s writer face to face. The independent label Rykodisc had just released What I Deserve, Willis’ critically acclaimed “comeback” album that endeared her more to the alt-country set than her first three albums on MCA ever did with the mainstream. Game for a little fun in the midst of the album’s publicity cycle, she accepted an assignment from RollingStone.com — arranged by her then publicist, Joan Myers, and this writer, at the time an editor for the magazine’s website in New York — to play roving reporter at that summer’s Country Music Association’s Fan Fair festivities in Nashville. Her quick run- in with Hall, colored by her self-consciousness about not being too “germy,” was the highlight of her diary report.
“That was the first time I met him, and he kind of scared me, because he saw the Rolling Stone badge I had and I think he maybe thought I was someone coming to make fun of country music,” Willis recalls. “He wasn’t very nice to me at first. And I was already nervous, because I’m not an interviewer, and I asked him something like, ‘You tell such great stories in your songs … do you have any literary writers that you love to read? Do you like to read?’”
She cringes. “And he went, ‘Yeah, I read,’ — really mad at me! Like I was suggesting that he didn’t read or something, I don’t know. But I think he saw that I was about to cry, and then he got super nice. And was very sweet to me for the rest of the interview.
“But yeah,” she continues, smiling. “That was pretty memorable.”
Willis has no idea if Tom T. Hall himself remembers their Fan Fair moment — let alone whether or not he’s heard her cover of “Harper Valley PTA” since its release on Our Year in late May, or if he would ever connect the dots between the Kelly Willis singing his song and the amateur Rolling Stone correspondent he almost made cry all those years ago. (“But wouldn’t that be cool?” she muses.)
One hopes the recording does eventually cross his radar in one way or another besides just being another line on a royalty statement, though, because Willis and Robison do his song proud. Although true in sassy spirit and rootsy arrangement to the 1968 Riley model, the slightly slower tempo and sultry slur of Willis’ vocal infuse every line and note with Tennessee late-summer humidity. You can practically hear the beads of sweat dripping off those PTA members’ brows as Mrs. Johnson calls them out one by one.
It’s a flat-out terrific track, and the fact that it’s surrounded on Our Year by nine others just as fine is testament to not just the respective talents of Willis and Robison (whose richly plaintive lead vocal on the string-kissed cover of the 1977 Vern Gosdin hit “A Hangin’ On” is 24-karat A.M. country gold), but to the character and charm of the distinctive sound that they’ve spent the better part of the last four years honing to perfection.
“Man, the greatest thing (about working together) was really coming up with this sound,” enthuses Robison, calling from the Austin airport a few days later, within minutes after their return from the aforementioned Northeast jaunt. First heard on stages in and around Austin in the months leading up to 2012’s Cheater’s Game, the couple’s debut full-length together after nearly two decades of managing separate solo careers under the same roof, it’s a sound that Robison likens to “all the harmony duos that I always loved, where the two things add up to something really different … It’s like a Simon & Garfunkel thing, where the vocal sound and harmonies are all right there at the front and center, and they’re there to present the song.
“After about halfway into Cheater’s Game, I just looked up and it was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s like 1991 again!’” he continues, flashing back to the hungry salad days when he and his older brother, Charlie, were both just starting out on the Austin music scene. (Willis, married at the time to her first husband, drummer/ songwriter Mas Palermo, was already one of the hottest things in town and newly signed to MCA.) “You know, you have a period when you’re starting out where you’re putting your thing together, and you work really hard, and then you get to where you’re kind of just wondering what comes next. I was at a point where I was really looking for something to kind of start the engine up again, and finding that sound together was something that I really found invigorating. It got me excited and looking forward to all the bits of doing this that maybe I hadn’t been that excited about for awhile.”
Cheater’s Game was greeted with considerable excitement by fans and critics, too, many of whom had been clamoring for the “first couple of Austin country music” — Willis the willowy, rockabilly-reared darling of the alt-country set and Robison the Bandera-born gentle giant who routinely wrote smash hits for the Dixie Chicks, George Strait, and Tim McGraw — to record a full album together after years of “Robison Family Christmas” engagements and a 2003 EP, Happy Holidays. From the outside looking in, it seemed like a no-brainer. After all, Willis had been covering her husband’s songs for years on her own records (most notably “Wrapped” on What I Deserve), and the exquisite “Friendless Marriage,” a song they wrote and sang together on Robison’s 2001 album, Country Sunshine, put to shame just about every other male/female country duet ever recorded this side of George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s divorce in the mid-70s.
But as far as Willis and Robison themselves were concerned, all of that was more than enough. “The thing is, I always felt like we were already collaborating, even playing a fair amount of shows together, so we really didn’t see a big reason to do a record proper,” says Robison. “And for decades, I was a fan of Kelly’s first, you know? And I’ve always been very protective of her — of her sound and her career and everything like that.”
Willis, of course, has long been a fan of her husband’s, too. But she notes that when they met each other and first started dating in 1992 (eventually marrying in ’96), they were both already solo artists, “and we just weren’t interested in being in a duo or a band. That wasn’t our motivation or our thing; it didn’t seem like we needed to do that, because we were very happy just making our own music.” Even in the privacy of their own home, where they happily share parenting and domestic duties but almost never write together. In fact, apart from a song they came up with right before going into the studio for Our Year that didn’t make the cut, Willis says “Friendless Marriage” is the only other song that they’ve co-written.
“We don’t sit in a room and write together very well,” she says. “And I have no idea why, but we’ve tried it several times, and we just can’t do it.”
Over time, though, they came to find out that they actually could, with baby steps, pull off the duo/band thing in tandem with their individual careers. “Little by little, as we worked on these little off-shoots together over the years, it just started to feel like we could do it and it wouldn’t threaten either one of us or make us forever linked musically,” Willis says. “And as we began to figure out our roles with each other, we knew that it really worked, it was really fun, and people really responded to it and liked it. So it just kind of organically happened, and finally it just felt like the right time and the right place for us to make a record together.”
At the encouragement of their manager at the time, Mike Crowley, the couple turned to their fans and Kickstarter to finance Cheater’s Game. Willis admits that they originally had reservations about going the fund-funding route, “because the perception is that you need money, and it can make you look a little desperate if you don’t do it right.” But upon deciding to try it out as a “one-time thing” and determined to make it count, they played ball and had fun with it, filming their tongue-in- cheek project video with actor friend Bill Wise playing his clueless, trailer-park talk-show host alter ego, Gill Webb. (“And you are father and daughter?” Webb asked at the outset. “Here’s a question: Why are y’all here today?”) Their fans loved it, ponying up just shy of $45 grand, and the popularity of their very funny “Gill Webb Show” clips on YouTube and social media continued to help promote the record long after it was paid for and released.
Robison had recently sold his Austin studio, Premium Recording Service, so they recorded the album in Nashville with producer Brad Jones (Hayes Carll, Chuck Prophett, Josh Rouse). After having produced his last several solo albums himself, Robison was more than ready to hand the reins over.
“One of the things I’ve come to realize over the last couple of years,justdoingalotof listening to the records that I love, is that I don’t think we make as good of records as they used to,” he says. “And man, I don’t care if it was the Beatles, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, or Willie Nelson, but all those guys worked with producers. And I realized I couldn’t do it all. There were times when I felt like I could do it all, but now I feel like you can’t really be there and make the music that you need to make and also be worrying about ‘is this the right take’ and all that kind of stuff. And after we started talking about working together, I saw just how much Brad understood the songs and the vibe and where we were coming from. It just gives you someone else to bounce things off, and I thought that was invaluable. He had a huge impact on what we ended up with on every song.”
The whole experience of making Cheater’s Game — not to mention the response — was so positive, that they kept all the same pieces in place (minus the Kickstarter factor) for Our Year. Same producer, same studio, same even-split of Willis-sung songs and Robison- sung songs, with shared harmonies by both throughout and only one song (the T Bone Burnett cover “Shake Yourself Lose”) arranged as a classic, verse-swapping duet.
“We just let the songs decide who sang what,” Robison explains. “Kelly’s a little better at that than I am, because I’m more tempted to get excited about too many things at first and just throw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks, whereas she has a real good center about the material and just knows whether a song fits for her or not.”
As was the case with Cheater’s Game, most of the songs on Our Year are covers, with the album bookended by Robison singing his sister Robyn Ludwick’s “Departing Louisiana” and Willis taking the lead on the closing track, penned by Chris White of the ’60s British rock band the Zombies. In between are two Robison originals (“Carousel,” co-written with Darden Smith, and “Anywhere But Here,” co-written with Monte Warden) and one by Willis (“Lonely For You,” written ages ago with Paul Kennerly.)
“Bruce actually did that song on his first record,” she says, “but when Sony bought the record from him, he wrote three new songs for it and kicked three off, and that was one of the ones that got kicked off. I forgot all about it until we pulled it out of the bone pile. Bruce will probably tell you I brought it up, but I think it was his idea.”
Willis concedes that it’s usually her husband who brings the lion’s share of songs to the table. “Bruce spends more of his energy on music than I do in general, because I get more caught up taking care of the kids and worrying about that side of our lives,” she says. “I mean, he’s a complete hands-on dad, too, but he just makes more of an effort to find time for music than I will, so he did a lot more of the legwork on both of these records than I did.”
She certainly makes the exceptions to that rule count, though. In addition to the aforementioned “Harper Valley PTA,” which has been a highlight of their live sets ever since that first night she whipped it out and knocked Robison’s jaw to the floor of the Continental Club Gallery, Willis was also the one who introduced the Zombies’ “Our Year” to their repertoire.
“I think I had just been searching and searching for stuff that we could do at our holiday shows that wasn’t just your standard Christmas song that everyone’s sick of hearing,” she recalls. “I’m not sure what made me think of that one, but it just felt like a good New Year’s song: goodbye to the old and hello to the new, this hopeful thing. We’ve been doing it for years now, sometimes with him singing it and sometimes with me, to the point where we don’t even remember who sang it last from year to year. Bruce was actually going to sing it for this record, but then Brad had us switch it around and came up with a great new harmony for Bruce to do that was different from any way we’d ever done it before. And then it was Bruce’s idea to do it without drums and to add the steel to it, which I think sounds really sweet.”
No matter who’s singing it, “Our Year” will doubtless stick around in those Robison Family Christmas shows for years to come. But outside of that annual tradition, opportunities to hear Willis and Robison singing their other songs from Cheater’s Game and Our Year onstage together are running out … at least for the time being.
“Right now, our plan is to quit playing together at the end of August, and then start working on solo stuff again,” explains Willis. “We just need some separation in our life, because it gets a little overwhelming. Being in any relationship involves constant problem solving, but normally you get to go to work and solve problems with other people. But when you live with someone and work together all the time, too, it can be really draining, because then you’re solving problems with the same person both at home and at work. So there’s no escape or refuge or comfort to look forward to; you don’t get to come home and tell the other person, ‘Today was awesome, but …’”
That’s not to say that all their time recording and touring together over the last few years ever brought the couple close to an actual breaking point. Far from it.
“We really do recognize that this is something special,” Willis insists. “You can feel it when you’re doing good work and when things are connecting, when the band is right, the energy is right, and the crowd comes excited and ready to hear what you’re going to do. That’s all good, and we know that that’s what’s happening right now, and we’re just enjoying it. So so far, so good — but you don’t want to push it if you can help it. So after we got this whole thing running and did all this work to kind of come up with this sound, the idea all along was, ‘Let’s just get in and cut the songs we want to record, capture this moment in time, and then we’ll move on.’”
So, after they’ve given Our Year its due and finished their victory lap together, Willis aims to start recording her next solo album — and first since 2007’s Well Travelled Love — either at the end of this year or in early 2015. Robison, meanwhile, will busy himself “tinkering” with songs out at his new recording studio in Lockhart (he’s calls it Bruce’s Country Bunker), though he doesn’t have a new record of his own on the calendar yet. (Presently, he’s leaning toward the idea of maybe putting out his music single by single.)
Still, regardless of what comes next from Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison as solo artists, rest assured that we probably haven’t heard the last yet from the Bruce and Kelly Show.
“I think probably in a few years, we’ll do something again,” Willis says. “Because I know I will really miss it. Bruce is really fun to be on the road with, and to be onstage with him and singing with him, it just feels like the best music I’ve ever done. And it also feels so great to have somebody to play with who cares just as much as you do about what’s happening.
“So, I’m sure we’ll do it again,” she assures with confidence. “It’s too much fun not to.”