There’s much ado about country music in New York right now, thanks, in part, to the recent launch of Nash FM -- New York City’s first country station in seventeen years. (Last week, Soundcheck tuned in to give the new station a listen.) Some of the debate circulating has been over what kind of country a New York station should be serving up. Right on time, Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison just might have the thing.
The Texan husband and wife team have recorded separately for years, Willis as a critically acclaimed solo country artist; Robison as a songwriter of number one hits for artists like George Strait, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks. Now, the duo follow in the tradition of other well-known country couples with a full-length album of their own, Cheater’s Game.
The record is a collection of seven originals and six covers, which Willis and Robison say are something of a tribute to the genre's strum and twang -- they've cleverly re-worked songs from Razzy Bailey, Hayes Carll, Robert Earl Keen and others.
Throughout, Willis and Robison’s voices climb like vines around each other; Willis’ effortless-sounding peal mingling perfectly with Robison’s slightly more rough-edged vocal. Their take on The Blasters’ "Border Radio" retains some of the original’s rockabilly swing, but takes it down a few decibels. The duo and backing band gently cradle Hayes Carll’s "Long Way Home," but show a bit more snarl on "Born To Roll." The title track is a more nuanced take on the heartbreak-betrayal trope -- less of a revenge fantasy, and more about the fears that circle in and around romantic entanglement. "I'm not ashamed of being afraid of losing you / What more can I lose," Willis sings.
A title like Cheater’s Game suggests a concept album of the darkest stripe, but here it is a more playful conceit, from the pinball machine cover art to the character in "No Kinda Dancer" who has two left feet, but finds a way to shuffle to the oompapa rhythm of tuba and accordion. Sure, there’s bad luck, booze and definitely plenty of banjos -- all delivered with a knowing wink.
Audio is no longer available for this feature. But, check out a video of the duo playing their song "Border Radio" below.
Gretta joined Soundcheck in 2010, having spent several years as a freelance radio documentary producer. Her stories on birders, fishermen, nurses, performance artists and even the Yale Whiffenpoofs have aired on a variety of outlets, from WNYC's Studio 360 to APM's The Story. She holds a B.A. in American Studies from Brown University and studied radio production at The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. She was a cellist in the rock band Cursive from 2001-2005.