Austin's first couple of country music, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis, get ready for their annual mistletoe-tapping holiday event at the Paramount Theatre.
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison have spent much of their nearly 20-year marriage focusing on their strong solo careers as singersongwriters of Americana and country. But they have made several records together, a collaboration rooted in a holiday show they first put on together in the late ’90s on a lark with Bruce’s brother, singer Charlie Robison; Emily Robison, Charlie’s wife at the time; and Emily’s sister and fellow Dixie Chick, Martie Maguire. Bruce and Kelly did it again the following year, and now the show, held at the historic Paramount Theatre, is an Austin holiday tradition. This year’s performance, on December 19, will—as usual—include a special guest or two (past years have seen Joe Ely, Shawn Colvin, and Jerry Jeff Walker). Austin Way caught up with Kelly Willis to talk about what’s in store this season.
How did the holiday show become a tradition? It started out as an excuse to get to play together because we weren’t seeing each other; I had a solo record out, so I was touring constantly. We had such a good time doing it. The Dixie Chicks [became huge], of course, so we couldn’t do it again with them, but Bruce and I could. He and I decided to do it again the next year, and we got such great feedback from it that it really influenced our decision to make a record together.
How do you choose which songs to perform? We have some that we do every year, like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The thing about Christmas songs is you know they drive people crazy, but some of them are tradition. I like to think we put a spin on them where they sound a little more like Bing Crosby. So hopefully it feels nostalgic and nice when you hear them. Other than that, we try to do songs you haven’t heard a thousand times. We do stuff in our wheelhouse—something kind of bluesy and rockabilly or, where Bruce is concerned, with an outlaw influence.
The country couple had some fun this summer with their Songs in the Key of Strife tour.
You and Bruce did a fun tour this summer called Songs in the Key of Strife, in which you took on classic country duets. What was that like? It was super fun. So many of those old great country standards, you don’t get to hear them very often live. We’re part of a club of people who know what it’s like to perform with their spouse. There’s a lot of emotion and passion and tension and all that stuff going on underneath and behind the scenes, so it’s really great to step into these other people’s songs and perform them. I feel like my voice was made for that era of country music.
You’ve probably unearthed some really interesting country songs. One year we did this Louvin Brothers song, “Shut In at Christmas”—it’s on our holiday record [2006’s Happy Holidays]. It’s really depressing! I love hearing these crazy songs that the Louvin Brothers would write, and their harmonies are so interesting.
What causes are closest to your hearts? Every year we do Turk and Christy Pipkin’s Nobelity Project’s Feed the Peace Awards Dinner [February 14, 2016, at the Four Seasons]. We love to participate in that. Austin Pets Alive! is a group that I love, so we to try to support it when we can.
What are some of your holiday traditions with your four kids? We always go down to the Zilker tree. We usually do that after Christmas when it’s less crowded. And we always get our tree from the Optimist Club (2813 San Gabriel St.). We sing the same group of songs when we’re decorating the tree, and the kids always get pajamas on Christmas Eve.
What are your plans going into 2016? This was the 25th anniversary of the release of my first album, Well Travelled Love. I’m getting Radio Ranch back together—that’s the band that recorded that album with me—and we’re going to go out in January and do some dates and have the record reprinted. I’m looking forward to that.