Country duo in step with Texans

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison draw jean-clad crowds in Austin

Outside La Zona Rosa, a popular music venue here, folks are dressed up by the standards of a town with the unofficial motto: "Keep Austin Weird." Which is to say, a lot of people are wearing their good jeans and fancy boots.

There's legitimate cause for such hifalutin' duds: This is a celebration.

They mill about, patient in their eagerness to witness a rare pairing of two of the most beloved singer-songwriters around. One is more famous for her voice; the other for his songwriting. Both have gained national acclaim. To say they are a force together is to call a hurricane a scattered shower.

With little pomp and less circumstance, nine musicians glide across the dark stage. The six men and three women take up guitars and keyboards, drums, mandolin, and fiddle. Up come the lights, and the voice of Kelly Willis fills this cavernous space to the brim with bell-clear pureness.

The opening tune, "If I Left You," written by Willis, is catchy, at once poignant and a little bit funny as the protagonist chides a recent ex for inappropriate postbreakup behavior.

And the way she sings it, well let's put it like this, Willis sings so pretty that, unlike some performers, even if she were ugly she'd still have legions of fans. (As it happens, she's been on People magazine's Fifty Most Beautiful People list.) The crowd responds with enthusiastic whoops and applause.

Among those clapping is Bruce Robison, Willis's husband - the other reason for tonight's big buzz. Robison has written two No. 1 country singles. Tim McGraw took "Angry All the Time" up the charts in 2000. And earlier this year, The Dixie Chicks scored big with "Travelin' Soldier."

That was right before Chick Natalie Maines publicly put a fine point on her feelings about the White House. Robison jokes about the momentary fallout onstage, referring to "Travelin' Soldier" as "the fastest descending country single ever in country music history," but hastening to add how proud he is of "the girls" for sticking up for their beliefs.

It is telling to observe their onstage dynamic as they alternate leads, provide backup vocals, and sing duets like "Always and Forever." They are not annoyingly goo-goo eyed, not competitive, not putting on some high-sheen country act.

They are clearly delighted not only to be playing together, but to be playing at all. Both used to gig more (though their annual Christmas shows remain a sure bet). But last spring, twins Abby and Ben arrived. With big brother Dodie, that brought the number of kids under 2 in the family to three and the amount of adult free time down to zero. "This is our It's Good To Be Out of the House Tour," Robison cracks.

A month after the show, on Dodie's first day back to preschool, the couple leaves the babies with their nanny to go out for morning coffee.

"This is like Christmas morning," says Robison, happy that some routine has resumed in their lives. "Just to have that little tiny bit of when you can do your work."

What they do manage to write is consistently amazing. In 2000, Austin Chronicle Readers voted Willis Best Female Singer and Best Country Singer, and for her work, Album of the Year. Nashville recording stars are always eager to peruse Robison's offerings. Lee Ann Womack recorded his "Lonely Too" on her multiplatinum record "I Hope You Dance," and Gary Allan covered "What Would Willie Do?" - a silly tribute to Mr. Nelson.

Kevin Connor, a host on Austin radio station KGSR, met Willis when she first moved to town. "She was very, very shy, but the shyness started to wear away when she would sing. That's where her confidence comes out." Of Robison, Mr. Connor notes, "He's my favorite Texas songwriter, with the only exception being Willie Nelson."

Robison's big brother, Charlie, who lives in Bandera, Texas, (and happens to be married to Dixie Chick Emily Robison) recorded "You're Not the Best," a song their grandmother hates.

Charlie, who has the bad-boy reputation in the family, says, "He's just been my best friend. We're opposite ends of the spectrum. I draw so much from him. He's calm, he goes about things pragmatically. He has a lot of the qualities I would love to have.

"Growing up in a small town, I couldn't have had anybody better to look up to even though he was the younger brother. I'll be in a slump ... and hear one of his new records and it blows me away and makes me really want to write more."

Both Willis and Robison had to clear numerous hurdles to get to where they are. Both had record-label contract troubles. (Independent label Rykodisc released her latest, last year's Easy; and Robison releases his CDs on his own label, Boar's Nest Records.) And all three of their babies were conceived by in vitro fertilization and against especially low odds.

Even their early romance was tinged with tragedy. In September 1991, their mutual friend, Chris Kern, was hit by a car and died a week later. Kern's mother, Sandy Silver, recalls Willis singing to her son in the intensive-care unit. "I heard this angel singing in his ear and I thought, 'Oh, he is loving this,' " she says.

They and Kern's other friends gathered nightly at the hospital to stand watch. On one of those nights after they left the hospital, Robison grabbed Willis and kissed her. "I think I expected her to slap me," he says. She didn't. But it took six years of off-and-on dating before they married. Silver, who helped as a nanny when the twins were born, says, "It's been a good circle of life."

Casey Monahan, director of the Texas Music Office in the governor's office says, "Bruce is one of those unnerving fellows who appears never to work but is seemingly always working.... He's also very honest. He's a quiet guy who's figured out how to make Austin work for his music career, something many talented Austin musicians haven't."

Lloyd Maines, a Texas music producer who has worked with Robinson, says, "He's one of the greatest writers I've ever heard. His melodies sound like they haven't been written before."

Willis agrees. "I'd love to do an all Bruce Robison record," she says, smiling at him across the table.

"She's my muse," he says. "I wish that I could just write songs and have her sing them and us be rich; that would be the perfect life."

For tour dates, go to kellywillis.com.

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