Kelly Willis / Bruce Robison

Cheater's Game

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Neither Kelly Willis nor her husband Bruce Robison has made a record since 2008. The singer/songwriters both took time off the road and from recording to raise children. While they've appeared on one another's recordings before, Cheater's Game is their first album as a duo. Produced by Brad Jones and recorded in Nashville, this 13-song set features seven new Robison tunes. The balance is made up of songs by some contemporary songwriters, and a couple from Nashville legends. Recorded with a small band in an intimate, retro, '70s style; the album is warm, inviting, and features a seamless meld of the duo's voices. The title cut opener is the only Robison co-write; his collaborators are Liz Foster and Savannah Welch of the Trishas. Issued as the album's pre-release single, "Cheater's Game," is a classic, late-night, country torch song introduced by Willis' contralto accompanied by a low-key pedal steel, fiddle, shuffling snare, and acoustic guitars. Robison joins her on the chorus, making the tune reminiscent of the vibe created by Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. It's followed by a looser, more rootsy backporch duet on Dave Alvin's "Border Radio." There's a deep lonesome read of Hayes Carll's "Long Way Home," with Willis up front opening the vein of regret wide and true. Robison's lead on Don Williams' "We're All the Way" takes the sweetness out of the original to reveal its poignancy. The wide-open near-bluegrass ramble of "Leavin'' is one of Robison's finest road songs. A big surprise is the fiddle-driven take on Razzy Bailey's stellar "9,999,999 Tears," with Willis in superb honky tonk form. "Born to Roll" showcases the couple's love of pumping, roots-trucker-rockabilly and their ability to pull it off. The only cut that doesn't work here is their version of Robert Earl Keen's country waltz, "No Kinda Dancer." In the grain of Robison's voice, the lyric becomes too nostalgic -- though the refrains work beautifully, as does the tuba interlude. The sparse and beautiful "Waterfall" is one of the finest duet love songs to come down the Americana pipe. It's answered by "Dreamin," an old-school, country torch song drenched in yearning. Cheater's Game is an excellent welcome back. It's organic, relaxed, unforced approach is deceptively high in performance skill, yet resonates with an emotional depth that rings true throughout. The listener can only hope they do this again soon.

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