Texas songwriting treasure Bruce Robison & robin-voiced wife Kelly Willis record “Cheater’s Game”, their first full-length album together, with decidedly awesome results.
If you’re tapped into the Texas music scene, you know Bruce and Kelly. Their names have become synonymous with Texas country, and for good reason. Bruce is responsible for, in my opinion, some of the greatest country songs of the last twenty years; “Wrapped“, “Angry All The Time“, “Travelin’ Soldier“, as well as cult-classics like “What Would Willie Do” (Guaranteed to get a crowd to sing-along). The difference between the average Joe who knows George Strait has a great song called “Wrapped“, and the pride that a Texan feels hearing Bruce do it, marveling at the impact a boy outta Bandera, Texas can make, is a significant difference. And Kelly, well, Mrs. Willis has one of the best voices in the nation, forget about Texas and Oklahoma (here native state). Live, she never misses a note, and the emotion she can wring out of a song is impressive.
All right, that’s the setup, now let’s dig into these songs. You’ll join me, right?
1. Cheater’s Game
The record’s namesake, “Cheater’s Game“, was co-written by Bruce, with the help of Liz Foster and Savannah Welch of The Trishas. Kelly’s voice kicks the song off, distinct and pleading, turning the lyrics into vivid imagery. Production-wise, the song sets the tone for the rest of the album, with its crying steel, fiddle, and classic honky-tonk themes.
2. Border Radio
Covering a Dave Alvin tune, “Border Radio” is one of my favorite songs on the record. It tells the tale of a woman who tunes into a border radio station every night, requesting songs for her man who’s somewhere across the border (running from the law, perhaps?), hoping he’s listening. Put that way, it kind of sounds like a sad song, but the Tex-Mex feel and chugging acoustic prevent the song from wallowing and turn it into plain cool.
3. We’re All The Way
Bruce takes the lead on this Don Williams song, relaxing into the vocal-part. The instrumentation is very laid back and it all has a very retro vibe, though that’s understandable since it was first recorded back in the 70’s. Still, it’s a pleasant-sounding tune that adds to the overall experience.
4. Long Way Home
I would never have thought of Kelly Willis and Hayes Carll being in the same sentence together. I mean, Hayes is such a rough and ragged wordsmith… the difference between the two is staggering. That’s probably why it works so damn well. “Long Way Home“ is reflective and mature, with a very sure-sense of its production. However, considering the fact that Cheater’s Game producer Brad Anderson helped produce and play on Hayes Carll’s fantastic KMAG YOYO, that’s no surprise.
5. 9,999,999 Tears
If you don’t like songs that get stuck in your head, then you might want to skip this song that is equal parts heartbreak and hyperbole. Written by Razzy Bailey and made a hit thanks to Dickey Lee in 1976, “9,999,999 Tears” is an infectiously fun song that may not warm a curmudgeonly heart, but I think the lyrics touch on, dare I say, a depth, however small, that may not be apparent first listen.
But the girls all look the same when they’re leavin’… (Excerpt from Leavin’)
If there’s one thing I love about Bruce Robison’s writing, it’s that his songs have such a lived-in quality to them, as if they have a history that speaks to a by-gone era, removed from the time they were recorded. Honestly, the entire album has that feel, and for my money, “Leavin‘” is an absolute stand-out track. The production is spot-on, paralleling the lyrical themes of nostalgia versus truth and the mixed feelings of romantic openness tinged with bitter-sweet love.
7. But I Do
I would love to say something insightful about “But I Do” (written by Bruce and Jedd Hughes), but I think I’d rather share my experience whilst listening to it in my car: I rolled the windows down, turned my stereo up, hit the highway and slapped the steering wheel in time, singing at the top of my lungs. The song pulled that out of me, and my hope is that it will do the same for you.
8. No Kinda Dancer
It’s an undisputed fact that Robert Earl Keen knows how to write great songs, whether you dig his style or not. Taken from the title-track off of Keen’s first album, “No Kinda Dancer” deserves a place somewhere high on the list of Texas Waltzes. What I especially like about Bruce & Kelly’s version is the spacing and dynamics they put into it, giving the song much-needed breathing room and atmosphere.
Bruce has cut his song “Lifeline” multiple times, with different results each outing. But it’s this latest rendition that seems to really find the heart of the song and locks in on it, squeezing greatness out of the lyrical imagery. It’s one of his finest tunes, and you can just about hear the happy contentment in Bruce’s voice when he sings it.
10. Ordinary Fool
No one sings Bruce’s songs like Kelly does. It’s like she has an insight into the true emotion of the song… well, I mean, she is married to him, so that could be one explanation, but I think it speaks to Kelly’s talent as an artist, as well. “Ordinary Fool” succinctly describes a part that we (usually) all play at one point in our lives, that of your average fool. It’s not an enviable position to find yourself in, but at least it makes for a good song.
11. Born To Roll
Following the journey of a destined-to-be trucker from birth, “Born To Roll” (written by Lore Orion, a very talented writer from Bandera, Texas) is as fun as it is witty. Filled with great lines like, “My Mamma had me in a sleeper of a diesel, she never heard about a cradle by the fireside,” and later, after his ascension into full-trucker status, “I’m hauling everything from underwear to dynamite,” you know it’s at least worth a listen, unless you have a serious aversion to anything related to big-rigs and such.
My personal favorite from Cheater’s Game, “Waterfall” is a classic country duet filled with big emotions and trenchant lyrics, letting the melody flow with the feeling of the song. It’s sparse, heartfelt and makes a great case for why we consider them the “First Couple” of country music. We need more songs like this to combat the hipster-duet movement, bringing it back into the territory of Johnny & June.
Finishing off the album is “Dreamin‘”, a song that sounds like it’s living in the 70’s, though that might be due to the title alone. With its catchy nostalgia and easy to sing-along-to melody, I could definitely see it as a possible radio single, as well as a standard in their live sets (don’t quote me on that!). All in all it’s a nice tune to close the record with, and holds up well to repeat listens.
Cheaters Game is a melding of traditional country with a modern Americana sensibility – The kind of album that you get when two veterans are in complete control of the direction they want to go. And while Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis are great artists in their own right, they meld together so perfectly, you won’t hear me complain if they put in more mileage making music* as a duo.
What are you waiting for? Go forth and listen.
* I wanted to point out my accidental alliteration.