by P. Mueller
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison have been performing together for years, but aside from a Christmas collection a few years ago, the First Couple of Alt-Country didn’t get around to recording an album together until last year. The wait was worth it; Cheater’s Game is as fine an effort as you’d expect from two pros at the top of their game. Need proof? The album entered the Americana Music Association radio airplay chart at No. 6 three weeks ago and is currently holding down the top spot.
Six of the album’s 13 tracks are covers, which speaks to the confidence Robison, Willis and producer Brad Jones had in this project. They know good songs when they hear them, and they weren’t shy about putting their own stamp on the work of others, including Dave Alvin, Robert Earl Keen and Don Williams, among others. Robison wrote or co-wrote the other seven tracks; they’re worthy of the company they’re in.
Willis and Robison demonstrate their versatility as performers in the album’s range of musical styles. Several songs – the title track, Williams’ “We’re All the Way,” Robison’s “Ordinary Fool” – have a traditional country feel. Alvin’s “Border Radio” gets a bouncy, Latin-tinged treatment, while Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” harks back to Kelly’s bright country sound of the early ’90s. The singer-songwriter vibe is represented by tracks such as Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer” and Robison’s “Leavin’ “ and “But I Do.”
The harmonies Willis and Robison have developed over years of professional and marital partnership are on display throughout the album; nice examples are their acoustic duet on the weepy “Waterfall” and the vintage-sounding final track, “Dreamin’ .“ Both do fine on their own as well – Willis takes a nice lead vocal on Hayes Carll’s melancholy “Long Way Home,” while Robison’s Texas twang predominates on “Leavin’” and “Lifeline.”
The rich musical texture of Cheater’s Game comes courtesy of a large cast of excellent supporting players. They include, among others, Dave Jacques, a longtime John Prine sideman, on bass (expected) and tuba (not so much); Pete Finney on steel guitar and banjo; Al Perkins on steel; Eamon McLoughlin of The Greencards on fiddle, mandolin and cello; Fats Kaplin on fiddle and accordion; Lex Price on bass, and Fred Eltringham on drums. Producer Jones takes a few turns as well, on guitar and keyboards.
For an almost- first-time collaboration, Cheater’s Game succeeds admirably. Let’s hope there’s more where that came from.