If there exists a constant within country music in 2013, it’s the collaborative album. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are teaming up for a long-awaited record, tour partners Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan recently completed work on an album, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have a record of their own in the works, and Steve Martin is branching out from The Steep Canyon Rangers to release a CD with Edie Brickell.
Yet another project, and first of these to see release, is Cheater’s Game, the inaugural duets album from Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison. Produced by singer/songwriter Brad Jones, it’s the first album from either artist in more than five years, and well worth the wait.
The majority of the project strikes a mournful tone, allowing Willis to showcase her fine interpretive skills as a honky-tonk balladeer. She does it best on the stunning title track, a couple’s lament on their marriage in the wake of unfaithful behavior. But she’s equally superb on “Ordinary Fool,” the story of a woman who understands a friend’s predicament following the end of a relationship. Both boast excellent lyrics (Robison co-wrote the title track with Liz Foster and The Trishas’ Savannah Welch and penned “Ordinary Fool” solo) and fine production work by Jones who uses wistful steel and lush acoustic guitars to effectively set the mood.
“Waterfall,” also written solely by Robison, showcases Willis’ gifts a singer better than any track on the album, opening with her gorgeous twang backed by a mandolin so light and weightless, it need not exist. The track, about a woman begging a bartender to pour her a waterfall of drinks to drown her sorrows, is one of the best and most delicately handled drinking songs I’ve ever heard.
Robison is a criminally underrated songwriter, on par with the likes of Bobby Braddock, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. His innate ability to take well-worn themes and vigorously bring them back to life with dynamic hooks elevates Cheater’s Game from ordinary to extraordinary. Even better is the pair’s ability to weave in outside material that blends with, opposed to distract from, the originals.
My favorite of the covers is Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Strait album. It took me a minute to warm up to the Tex-Mex vibe, but the duo brings it to life wonderfully. Also excellent is Robison’s laid-back reading of Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way,” which brings out the sensual side of his voice and showcases a tender moment for the pair as a duo.
I much prefer Willis and Robison’s take on “Long Way Home” to Hayes Carll’s original, as they exude a warmth missing from the gruffness of his version. Only Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” (a #3 hit for Dickey Lee in 1976) doesn’t fit the vibe of project, and while Willis sings it wonderfully, the catchy sing-a-long aspects of the track take away from the album as a whole.
Robison takes the lead on many of the project’s uptempo moments and adds a pleasing contrast to the seriousness of the songs sung by his wife. A fabulous mixture of acoustic guitar and fiddle prove the perfect backdrop for his take on Lawrence Shoberg’s “Born To Roll,” and he brings a calming easiness to his solely penned “Leavin,” a road song with an appealing singer-songwriter vibe and Spanish-y acoustic guitar.
“But I Do,” a co-write with Jedd Hughes, has an attractively plucky acoustic aura and playful vocals from the duo that match the vibrancy of the backing track. It’s a sharp contrast from “Dreamin,” a delicate acoustic ballad about budding love. I especially love the banjo on “Lifeline,” and the way the fiddle and steel gently guide his somewhat sleepy vocal on Robert Earl Keen Jr’s, “No Kinda Dancer,” which would otherwise have been too slow for me to fully appreciate.
Before Cheater’s Game I had begun to think that the heart and soul of country music had been lost, replaced by sound-a-like party anthems extenuated by an 80s rock mentality. Thank goodness Willis and Robison remain unaffected by the glitz of mainstream Nashville and put authentically raw and uncomplicated gems like this out into the world. Music in this vein isn’t made much anymore, which makes albums like this such a treat. I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates and loves traditional country music.