We know them by their first names, always spoken in tandem: George and Tammy; Johnny and June; Conway and Loretta; Waylon and Jessi. Add the names Bruce and Kelly to that list, as they are the new heirs apparent to the grand tradition of country music couples.
Both members of this husband-wife duo have enjoyed successful careers in the music business: Kelly Willis as a well-known singer and Bruce Robison as both a performer and an in-demand songwriter. Married for 17 years, the couple just recently joined musical forces on “Cheater’s Game,” their first album together. The album has garnered enthusiastic reviews and a nomination for Album of the Year by the Americana Music Association, as well as a Group/Duo nomination for Robison and Wills. Their current tour brought them to the Dakota Jazz Club in early May, where they quickly transformed the classy downtown night spot into the upscale equivalent of a Texas roadhouse.
Matters got off to a lively start with the Dickey Lee classic, “9,999,999 Tears To Go,” with Bruce’s mid-range baritone harmonizing well with Kelly’s sweet, earnest alto voice. The country weeper, “Dreamin” followed, featuring a lonesome harp solo by Bruce, accenting Kelly’s mournful, yearning lead vocal. Ä cover of Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio” was next, with the rockabilly edge of the original softened somewhat by the pedal steel guitar work of Jeff Kling, who alternated between the Telecaster (lead and slide) and pedal steel all night.
Not to be outdone by her songwriting husband, Kelly introduced “What I Deserve” by noting that she had co-written the song with local hero Gary Louris, best known for his work with the seminal Twin Cities alt-country band, The Jayhawks, but a frequent songwriting collaborator with other musicians as well. When it was Bruce’s turn to step out front, he chose “Wrapped,” his composition that became a hit song for George Strait. With its chorus about being “wrapped around your pretty little finger again,” it was clearly and unabashedly a love song directed at the lovely blond woman standing and strumming to his left.
It was back to the “Cheater’s Game,” album for the next couple of songs, the wistful, bluegrass-flavored “Leavin'” and ‘the more uptempo “But I Do.” The fiddle parts from the recorded versions of both songs were missed – an unfortunate but necessary consequence of working within the confines of a small-club tour budget. Switching back to material from her solo efforts, Kelly knocked it out of the park with “Heaven Bound,” a curious combination of sad lyrics wed to a rousing country beat. It was a pure honky-tonk angel turn for Kelly, and a standout moment of the show.
The set list continued to alternate between songs off the new album and other gems from the duo’s respective catalogues, with the trucking song “Born To Roll” and the title track to “Cheater’s Game” falling in the former category, and “My Brother and Me,” and “Traveling Soldier” (Bruce’s hit song for The Dixie Chicks) representing the latter. A cover of The Kendalls’ 1977 classic “I Think I’m Giving In” led to an audience request for “I Don’t Want To Love You But I Do,” Kelly’s first single. “We thought we were going to be as big as The Beatles!” Kelly noted wryly, and with the wisdom that has come from over 20 years in the business.
Bruce introduced his next song by noting “I have two kinds of songs: sad songs, and slightly faster sad songs,” leading into “Angry All The Time.” A depressing vignette about a couple whose marriage is disintegrating, “Angry” was originally recorded by Bruce but became a hit for another, better known country music couple, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.. The antidote to that sad song followed, with Kelly’s sweet rendition of Bruce’s tender love ballad, “Cradle of Love.” Then it was back to Bruce, who noted that since it was a Sunday night, it was time for a “spiritual,” namely, his hilarious ode to The Red Headed Stranger, “What Would Willie Do?” The set ended with two more songs from the “Cheater’s Game” album, the Hayes Carll composition, “Long Way Home,” featuring another harp solo by Bruce, and the hopeful, rollicking “Lifeline.”
Bruce and Kelly ended the night with the encore set of Bruce’s “What Did You Think,” followed by a rousing cover of the Jeannie C. Riley mega-hit, “Harper Valley PTA.” With their well-balanced and carefully selected set list, Bruce and Kelly not only showcased their new album and highlighted each other’s individual careers, but also covered a generous sampling of earlier country music classics. It was a full and satisfying evening by country music’s newest up and coming power couple.