How Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis’s Holiday Shindig Was Born
With the holidays behind him, Bruce Robison looks back at his iconic Holiday Shindig and how it all got started.
Editor’s note: Each year, Bruce Robison and his wife, Kelly Willis, spread cheer with their annual Holiday Shindig, a show that Texans have treasured for years. With this year’s show—and the holidays in general—behind him, Robison looks back at how the show became a holiday tradition not just for Robison’s family, but for Texans across the state.
As I was going through searching for photos and videos from our first Holiday Shindig, in 1998, I realized that in that one year we all released the work that would define our careers. In 1998, Kelly put out What I Deserve, after she thought she’d leave music for good. My big brother, Charlie, had released Life Of The Party, which made him a Texas music icon, and his new wife, Emily, dropped Wide Open Spaces with the Dixie Chicks. And I had released Wrapped, which was full of songs that would become country radio hits for people like George Strait and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. I didn’t realize that year was so important to our careers until I started writing this piece.
The year after, in 1999, our noses were to the grindstone—what a year. We were on the road all of the time, and somebody booked a gig for us around the holidays just so we could get together. Our new in-laws, Emily Robison and her sister Martie Maguire, also of the Dixie Chicks, offered to play with us as a secret. That first show would end up being one of the hundreds of shows around the holidays that we would later play, and it was the start of something that Kelly and I still have a hard time believing even happened. Life sure will do that to you.
Charlie decided we weren’t going to do any dorky Christmas songs despite the December date of the show. He brought in a few bluegrass covers we could sprinkle in with our own tunes, things like the Stanley Brothers. As I recall, I had a Ray Charles CD that I was listening to that had a duet with Betty Carter of the old songbook classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The structure and delivery of the tune just blew me away. We actually took some real time to learn it. After the show went so well we were called out for an encore, and that was when we performed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the first time. I’m sure Kelly and I were reading the lyrics, but in our memory the crowd went nuts. We did it again at another December show in Fort Worth, and it was a showstopper again. I remember talking to some folks after the show and they asked me if I had written the song. That really surprised me, but I guess in 1999 not many people knew about it. It has been recorded a million times, but it was and continues to be a special thing for us.
Years later a fan brought me a recording he had bootlegged from the Fort Worth show that first year. We certainly thought those would be the only Christmas shows we would ever do, but it didn’t quite turn out that way.
I can’t remember if I was skeptical when Rusty Andrews asked us to reprise the Robison family Christmas the next year, but I personally have made it known that I feel like the last person on the planet that should be part of an annual Christmas show. If I am known for anything, it is super sad country songs—what I see as the antithesis of the idealized songs that usually make the commercial holiday experience. It’s just not my bag. And yet, we agreed to do the Houston show again and I guess our agent at the time booked a few more around Texas. We grabbed our brother-in-law, John “Lunchmeat” Ludwick, back from the first year (he has been with us every year since) and hit the road.
That second year we very much wanted an excuse to sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” again, but we also wanted to avoid beating fans over the head with the same five Christmas songs you seem to hear everywhere you go. I had done a tour with a wonderful songwriter from Knoxville named RB Morris, just us two in a van for a month, and what I remembered most is a song he would play every night called “A Winter’s Tale.” He’s one of those songwriters that’s really a poet in their own right, and I knew I wanted to include this song in our set for its beautiful holiday imagery.
I don’t remember too much about that second year other than we managed to pull it off, and a tradition had been born. When our first child was born, in January 2001, that importance slowly began to make more sense to me. My family’s holidays, like many in the seventies that weathered horrible divorces and multiple awkward and forced holidays, had no holiday traditions. As the new millennium started, by total accident, Kelly and I started our own tradition of family, music, and the holidays.
There is somebody playing music tonight in Austin who is just as good as anybody on the planet, and the chances are there will be about twenty people there watching the lonesome performer, who is able to express feelings with music the way the rest of us just dream about. I don’t really remember why I started recording the Christmas EP, but I think it had a lot to do with a local Austin musician I saw play. His name was Slim Richey, and he was one of those rarities.
When I told him I was thinking of recording some holiday tunes and asked if he would play on them, he readily agreed. Slim’s style and guidance truly shaped the record—he wrote and performed the most beautiful arrangements for the songs we picked, and even helped me pick the musicians that provided the classic flavor that makes those recordings feel so good. I was trying to keep the EP low-key enough to not get into trouble with Kelly’s record label, so I printed up a few and dropped them off at the local radio stations.
We printed two or three thousand that first year, just selling it at Waterloo Records, which would call us up when they needed more. We were just going to give it away at the Christmas shows as a thank you to everyone who came year after year. We approached it in a really simple way—we were just recording some fun holiday music together, like a Christmas card. That first EP felt great: a hyper-local release full of the community spirit.
Kelly’s record label did, in fact, find out about our little EP. But to our surprise, they weren’t mad about it at all—they wanted to release it nationwide. So, Rykodisc asked us to add a few songs to make it a full-length record. The hunt for new songs began once again to round out our holiday repertoire. We ended up adding “Santa Looks A Lot Like Daddy,” that really depressing Louvin Brothers tune “Shut In At Christmas,” and a live recording of “Oklahoma Christmas,” the true story of my first trip to meet Kelly’s family in the tiny town of Sentinel, Oklahoma—the first Christmas song I had written.
One year, we were having dinner at the home of my musical hero, and—this is still crazy to say—our dear friends, Jerry Jeff and Susan Walker. At some point the holiday show came up, and we asked Jerry Jeff to come sit in. He agreed, so I set to strategizing.
I am the biggest Jerry Jeff fan, so I was beyond excited when he came to rehearsals with the band and agreed to whatever we asked. He did a holiday song, a sublime version of “Mr. Bojangles,” and, lastly, a special surprise for our fans. We rehearsed the song “Gettin’ By” from his iconic record ¡Viva Terlingua! to keep in our back pocket. Without any introduction, we jumped into the drum intro, and from the first words, “Hi, Buckaroos!” the audience erupted. I knew in that moment this whole annual show, which had started so accidentally and organically ten years before, had turned into a part of the community. We continued bringing on these special guests that were beloved pillars of the community, which only strengthened the idea that it was some kind of institution. People would stop us then, as they continue to do now, and tell us they come every year. It truly is a humbling thing to play a small role in so many families’ traditions around the holidays.
What’s in my mind every year as we try to put the show together is a mix of Hee Haw and some of the old variety shows from my youth. Think Johnny Cash Show, Smothers Brothers, Sonny & Cher Show, etc. where the vibe was low-key, the music was great, and it was totally, utterly unpretentious.
I knew for a long time that I wanted to film some of our music like those shows. If you look at what’s out there, me and Kelly on YouTube, it’s pretty depressing. It’s all things folks recorded on their phones, or videos from twenty years ago, or radio interviews. I knew the tightest thing that we had was our annual show at the Paramount. It had evolved over time, and we had tons of material we can chose from every year with the guys bringing in suggestions for new tunes that will be fun and fitting.
But, I also didn’t want our taping to be just about us. Didn’t feel like it would really be in the spirit of the show. So the first year we taped, in 2014, I saved up for a professional crew and brought on Texas icons and some of my personal heroes, Joe Ely and Shawn Colvin.
We picked our favorite songs from the night, along with Joe and Shawn’s tunes, and it ended up airing on PBS, which was such a fun thing. I still want Joe and Shawn to come through the studio and get to tell their amazing stories because they truly are such impactful artists in the culture of country music, but that will have to wait for another time.
In 2015, I had booked Rodney Crowell as our special guest and knew that we had to get him to sit down and talk with us. I had in my mind a vision of putting together something like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, and pulled together a huge team for this one with set design, wardrobe, makeup, film crew, live director, production assistants. And so, the day of the show came and we sat down at our makeshift set in the basement of the State Theater, which is next to the Paramount. I still get chills thinking about all of the amazing stories that Rodney told us that day—from meeting Roger Miller, to recording with Willie Nelson, to writing Christmas songs with his kids—and he often dropped into song where the music told the story best.
This year, we were so proud to continue this tradition and play a small part in our community’s holiday celebrations. We could not have been more thrilled to have Lee Ann Womack as our special guest this year. And we hope that people will join us next year for what we believe will be a tradition for many years to come—a wonderful community coming together, the way it should be on the holidays.