Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis’ Cheater’s Game will surely notch a spot on countless best-of-2013 lists. The married duo’s instant country classic backs five excellent originals with six choice covers, including Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio” and Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.”
In addition to his acclaim as a performer, Robison is the songwriter behind the Dixie Chicks’ “Travelin’ Soldier” and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s “Angry All the Time.” During a recent interview with CMT Edge, Robison talked about his respect for rising star Hayes Carll and how living in Austin impacts him as a musician.
CMT Edge: Explain how the new album took shape.
Robison: We had been kicking around the idea, and then we did about six months of shows out on the road just with a steel guitar and a stand-up bass. In the middle of it, we started saying, “God, this is a lot of fun. You can hear everything.” It had a simple groove to it that we really enjoyed. So we started this process of woodshedding where we came up with the sound we were looking for, and it helped us find the songs. We really knew what we wanted to do when we went into the process of recording.
Was it a mutual decision for you and Kelly to finally collaborate?
It was mutual between Kelly and me and management. (laughs) Then once we started talking about it, frankly, all the people we worked with started getting really excited about it. Once we decided to do it, I got super excited about it and decided, hey, this is what I’m gonna spend my time trying to make great for the next year. Once we jumped over that edge, we were off and running.
Explain the album title.
(laughs) We went through what seems like 100 songs looking for the ones that worked, and a lot ended up being songs that I had. I’ve got a lot of songs lying around, and “Cheater’s Game” really felt like a female song. I wrote it with a couple of girls in the Trishas [Liz Foster and Savannah Welch]. It really wasn’t on my radar screen because it felt like such a girl’s song, but then I was thinking about songs that Kelly would perhaps want to sing, and I threw that out there. We played it one time, and we just thought it was great. Then we recorded it, and it ended up being one of the standout tracks everybody was really excited about. Then they said, “Man, this would be a great title.”
Describe writing with the Trishas.
They were great. I’m a horrible co-writer, and I’ll just tell you that flat-out. They were probably patient with me. I’m horrible at it, and I rarely ever do it. I do remember what I liked about that is that they continuously tried to get rid of that title, and I kept thinking it was the best part of the song. I thought it was interesting ,and I didn’t care what it meant.
Why do you say you’re a horrible co-writer?
I’m more of a solitary guy who ponders, and I always have been over the years. Co-writing isn’t something that comes naturally to me. It’s something I really dread. (laughs) I’ve spent many, many days, weeks, months in Nashville and done many co-writing sessions, and it’s not something that comes easily for me. I know a lot of people who it comes easily for, but it’s really rough for me.
How did you go about selecting covers for the album?
I said, “We’re gonna find the best songs that we can find to sing together whether I write zero of them or 11 of them.” I really didn’t care. Then we went through this process with just Kelly and me on acoustic guitar, which was really interesting. We’d grab a song, and we’d see who was gonna sing lead on it and then start moving the keys around and then start messing around with the harmonies. It’d just fall into place, and it’d feel great to sing it, and then we’d send it off to our producer, Brad Jones.
What drew you to Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home”?
That one was a little different. I heard that song right after I became aware of Hayes, and it blew me away. I thought it was a great song, and I’ve been trying to get Kelly to do it for years. I brought it back up when we were working on this project.
What’s Hayes’ greatest asset as a songwriter?
You know, he’s got his own voice. Those are the ones I tend to like. One of the things I can be jealous of is that he’s got a real sense of humor that comes through in a lot of his songs. I love that about those of us from Texas. There are a lot of influences and I can hear a lot of them in there with Hayes from Townes [Van Zandt] to Ray Wylie [Hubbard] to Todd Snider. He really brings that stuff together, and it comes out something special on the other side.
Why choose “No Kinda Dancer” over one of Robert Earl Keen’s better-known songs?
That one was important to me. When [brother] Charlie and me moved to Austin in probably 1989, there was a thing going on in Nashville with Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith and Randy Travis and all this stuff that really threw us back into country music after 20 years. I mean, it was everywhere when you were a kid back in Bandera [Texas, his hometown]. When we moved to Austin, we discovered a whole other crop.
That record was one we picked up on and listened to a ton when I discovered Robert. That song is especially important because that sounds like the Hill Country and where I came from. It’s got German people and the oompah band. I think perhaps that was one of those where I was like, “This guy is talking about where I came from. Maybe there is a place for me in this, you know?”
How does living in Austin help shape you and Kelly as artists?
It really does. I think the reach of the business side of things when you live in Nashville or New York or L.A. is inescapable. It affects me when I’m only there for five days. In Austin, you really are, for good or bad, outside of that.
I spent a good 10 or 15 years really trying to figure out what it was I want to do and in relative anonymity. It really focused more on just going out and playing music in Austin, and you’re not thinking about any of the industry side. I think that’s the most singular difference about playing in Austin. You’re not looking over your shoulder to see who’s coming in to the gig to see you play.