Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison’s excellent Our Year album follow the country duo’s acclaimed first collaboration, Cheater’s Game. That project won country album of the year at last month’s Lone Star Music Awards in San Marcos, Texas.
Willis spoke with CMT Edge about the new collection, working with her husband again and how living in Central Texas shapes them as songwriters.
“I think it’s being exposed to other people who value music and encourage each other,” Willis says. “People just enjoy the process of making music and the art of music. At the end of the day, Austin’s a great environment with like-minded people.”
CMT Edge: Describe the song selection process for the new album.
Willis: These were songs that we really wanted to take a shot at. We didn’t feel like we’d completely finished with the duo project. We wanted to get in there and have some fun in the studio again. Things were really working for us. Bruce put it on the calendar so it would have to happen. (laughs) I can put stuff off. I go, like, five years between records. He made it all happen. It was all very natural and fun and easy.
Explain the inspiration behind the cover photo.
I think we were thinking “Motor City Man” was one of our favorite tracks on the record. We were trying to find something fun and playful with that theme. So, we started thinking about cars and working around that theme. The whole Bud and Sissy thing from Urban Cowboy was a bit of inspiration for looking back through the backseat. I will say, we had our first date in that pickup, so it’s been along for the ride with us. It’s been the ride.
Huh. I figured you guys were mirroring Guy Clark’s Texas Cookin’.
I know! I didn’t realize, but someone else just pointed that out. We’d like to say that it’s an homage to them on purpose, but we had no idea! We didn’t even realize that we were ripping them off!
What drew you to “Departing Louisiana”?
You know, we’ve always loved [Robison’s sister] Robyn [Ludwick]’s songs and songwriting. I’ve considered one or two of her songs over the years, but I think it took both of us really wanting to do that. Bruce brought that one in and started playing it. Some songs you love don’t really take off, but when we started playing that one, it sounded great.
It was fun to play. We had so much fun, and adding the standup bass and having Bruce sing it made it sound different and have a different perspective. I think it’s a combination — the family connection and mutual enthusiasm. I wanted it to be first because I think it set the tone for what makes this record different from the last. It sets the personality for the music.
Tell the story behind writing “Lonely for You.”
Paul Kennerley and I wrote that a long time ago when I was still on MCA Records, so I can’t even remember what inspired it. I do remember that Bruce recorded it for his first record, but when Sony picked it up, they left it off and added a couple of others. I just thought twice about it again. We were digging through stuff, and one of us found that. I think it was Bruce.
That’s one of the things we always marvel about with songs. They always find their place. Sometimes we’ll think a song’s perfect, and we’ll go in and record, and it’ll just fall apart and not work at all. This little song found its moment in time. We both think it turned out great. It just fit.
Describe Bruce’s best quality as a songwriter.
Wow. Well, I love that he makes these great melodies. They’re just great country melodies and great choruses. He tells these great stories, and the words he chooses to use make them seem poetic and yet it’s something that everybody has experienced. That’s just great country songwriting, I think. I feel like it’s poetry — the way he tells a story.
Does the title of the album represent a common lyrical theme?
I didn’t pick up on a common theme, but I love that song (“This Will Be Our Year”). It talks about a couple that’s obviously been together a long time and been through some stuff, and they’re coming out of it in a moment that’s filled with hope. The future is all worth it. “We finally made it to this place.”
I love that that could apply to Bruce and me. It’s hard. Everybody knows it’s hard to be in a relationship a long time, and you never know when the sweet moments are going to happen. You just hope and pray that they will. This has been a really sweet time for us.
Why did you wait so long to collaborate?
We’ve been avoiding working together for years because it’s hard to balance it all, and you want to make sure that you protect your relationship before everything else. But when it was finally the right time, I think the fact that we’ve been together so long made the music better.
We were fans of each other. We knew each other well enough to where the music works. It might not have if we’d tried earlier. So it kind of feels like a sweet little moment in time for us, but I don’t know how long we’ll be able to be working together simply because it’s too hard on our family. We have to juggle a lot to make it happen.
So, no plans for a third?
We don’t have any plans. In fact, our plans are to go do solo records now, but I could totally see us working together at some point down the road. It’s part of our musical world now. It’s one of the things that we do.