Bruce Robison is best known for songs recorded by Tim McGraw (“Angry All The Time”), The Dixie Chicks (“Travelin’ Soldier”) and others. Kelly Willis is a critic’s darling with seven albums over a 20-plus year career – Time Magazine named her 1999 disc What I Deserve its “country record of the year.”
Called the “reigning couple of Austin country music” by Austin Magazine, it took over two decades for Willis and Robison to finally make a record together (apart from 2003’s Christmas disc Holiday Music). Produced by Brad Jones (Over The Rhine, Josh Rouse), Cheater’s Game is worth the wait, a brilliant, nearly flawless collection of 13 songs that should please both purist and esoteric tastes.
Robison contributed seven original tunes. The title cut is a standout, a languid torch song with Willis singing lead, co-written with Liz Foster and Savannah Welch of The Trishas. The gorgeous, Everly-esque “Dreamin’” is another co-write, with Fastball’s Miles Zuniga.
The remaining originals are all Robison. “Leavin’” has an early Paul Simon feel, while the rollicking “Lifeline” could find a home on the next Dixie Chicks album, should that ever happen.
Cheater’s Game is a wonderfully curated affair. Robison found Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” through Dicky Lee’s version, which charted in the mid-70s. Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio” is another gem; The Blasters’ song undergoes an effective gender switch in Willis’ able hands.
“Born To Roll” is perhaps the best song ever written about trucking, with great lines like, “I cut my baby teeth chewing on the naugahide” and “Mama taught me how to read from a road map.” It was written by Lore Orion, a multitalented artist who drew cover art for the New Riders of the Purple Sage and playing in the tragically overlooked late 70s country band Banderas.
Orion wrote “Born To Roll” in 1978. “There was a dearth of truck driving songs at the time,” he said in a recent email. “And that just ain't right.” The track is actually a repeat - Robison quietly released it as a single in 2009 with help from Rodney Crowell. The couple’s version subtly improves on the first take.
The release of Cheater’s Game coincides with a small national tour, a very exciting thing indeed. The couple stopped playing live with the exception of a few Austin club shows in 2008 to focus on their three kids. Willis hasn’t performed north of Virginia since last century, so their Valentine’s Day show at Somerville’s Johnny D’s should be a treat.
Rating – 5 stars (perfection)
Best tracks – “Born To Roll,” “Lifeline” and “Cheater’s Game”