On Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis’s Beautiful Lie, the upcoming fourth collaborative effort from Texas’s first couple of country, the married duet partners deliver a diverse collection of songs shaped by time and memory. Their rich and warm vocals bend and bleed into one another throughout. You hear the years of experience ring out as one comes in to back up the other. Naturally, there’s visceral intimacy on Beautiful Lie that Robison and Willis tap into time and again. They’re drawn to one another.
Even when Robison or Willis sings about love gone awry, they’re informed by their own relationship (they’ve been married for 23 years). On songs like the slow waltzing ballad “Beautiful Lie,” the crushingly sublime “Lost My Best,” and the album-closing “Heartache to Houston,” Robison and Willis are at their peak. With “One Dime at a Time,” they pluck an absolute ace barroom deep-cut from the honky-tonk jukebox. It chugs along like the pocketful of dancing change it carries. Along with “Brand New Me” and “Can’t Tell Nobody Nothin,” Robison, Willis, and company pack a punch with ample humming guitars and striking pedal steel.
Texas singer/songwriter Jack Ingram joined Robison to write “Astrodome,” a song that takes us on a trip of deep introspection. We tag along as Robison and Willis travel back to the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and wipe the dust off fading memories. The Astrodome may as well be a totem to remind you of the years that have passed. The touching music video for “Astrodome,” which Texas Monthly is premiering here today, really brings that home. Directors Jeff Nichols (the highly acclaimed, Austin-based filmmaker known for movies such as Loving, Midnight Special, Mud, and Take Shelter) and José Luis González combine animation, historic footage of the Astrodome’s glory days (appearances include Nolan Ryan, Elvis, Selena, LBJ and Lady Bird, and Billie Jean King), and a present-day walk through the empty, cavernous space to capture the past and present existence of the endearing Texas icon. It’s a charming and bittersweet look that sparks flashbacks of your own. All the while, Robison and Willis gently harmonize on the nostalgic blessing. We see flashes of the past, but “Astrodome” is also a reminder that future memories are to be cherished as well.
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Beautiful Lie comes out June 21 (it can be preordered here), and the couple will launch their national tour—which includes many Texas dates—from their home city of Austin on June 13, at the Cactus Cafe. Before they hit the road, Texas Monthly caught up with Robison to discuss the album—including how Robison finally wrote a happy love song—and The Next Waltz, Robison’s record label and web series.
Texas Monthly: You and Jack Ingram wrote the song “Astrodome” on this album. The Astrodome sparks a real nostalgic feeling for a lot of Texans.
Bruce Robison: The Astrodome was a real magical place for us and a lot of people. It’s been a bummer seeing it sitting there decrepit. It’s hard for people to understand what it felt like there in the sixties and seventies. I wasn’t sure if the idea was a good one or not; I had the idea for the song for a long time. Jack was just encouraging me. We’d gotten together and tried to write it a couple of times. That’s always nice when someone is pushing you forward on something.
TM: Beautiful Lie is the fourth collaborative album between you and Kelly. Y’all have always chosen great songs for these albums. We often think of you and Kelly as being great songwriters and performers, but you’re also very attentive to the album-making process. It’s often the difference between a project being a collection of songs and it really feeling like an album.
BR: I come from another era. The people that I loved—Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Emmylou Harris—there wasn’t even a concept of doing “outside” songs. It’s what everybody did. That’s how they made great records. I’m of that school. Those people, they formed my idea of what great records should sound like.
TM: I know it doesn’t necessarily come in a totally linear fashion, but what was it that really jump-started Beautiful Lie?
BR: I had found that song “If I Had A Rose” and we had really loved singing it so much, so it kind of grew from a single into an entire record.
TM: That’s one of three Adam Wright songs on the album. How’d you get turned onto these in particular and Adam’s catalog in general?
BR: I had ended up looking through a list of all his songs through my old publishing company, and they were just amazing. People don’t write songs like that anymore. They haven’t really been getting them cut either. Most of those songs hadn’t even been demoed. I would find them, and there’d [just] be a guitar and vocal. I reached out to Adam about them. He writes the songs I wish I could.
TM: While listening to Beautiful Lie, I was thinking about how well you and Kelly do heartbreaking ballads. It’s interesting how you can sometimes say more about love in a breakup song than you do in a typical love song. However, you do have a love song on here you wrote called “Coming Down.”
BR: Yeah, you have to give me some credit. It’s the first true love song I’ve written in my life [laughs].
TM: There’s a line in there that really pops out. It’s “life and doubt go hand in hand.” You said it’s your first love song. What spurred that on into being a song?
BR: I wrote that song really fast. I don’t really write happy songs. It’s sometimes difficult for me to get back to where I was when I was writing on a song. I was in Florida though. There was something about being away from Kelly for a while. I was really happy though when I was writing it. I looked down at the paper and said, “Unbelievable. That’s a love song.” When I played it for her, she liked it, and so we started playing around with it. You know, I do get tired of singing sad songs all the time during a show. It’s hard to play a whole show of sad songs when people paid their hard-earned money to see you play. You don’t want to bring them down the entire time.
TM: You have a knack for cleverly picking on yourself in a song. “Brand New Me” has that, as does “One Dime at a Time,” written by Ed Bruce and Jerry Chestnutt. It has that classic smokey barroom feel to it, but is kind of an obscure.
BR: I didn’t really know that song–and my whole thing is, if I don’t know a song, most others aren’t going to either. That song really fit well for Kelly and me in different ways. She has this big rockabilly background, which I don’t. But that song fits from both a country and rockabilly point of view. It’s kind of an amalgam of our backgrounds.
TM: Y’all recorded this down at your studio down in Lockhart. In the liner notes it says, “All songs recorded on analog tape with no digital shenanigans.” It feels like that’s such an important element to album making for you that you really hang your hat on.
BR: It’s definitely a limiting medium that can be helpful—it’s the way you have to commit to it, the speed at which you’re working is slower, and then the sound of it at the end of the day. All of those things, I find them conducive to the way I like to work when recording an album. It’s hard for a lot of people to understand how different it is. But sometimes to me, the process of digitizing music and working on it that way is as effective as digitizing an omelette or a loaf of bread and then trying to eat it.
TM: You bring that mindset and atmosphere to The Next Waltz too. You’ve been doing those videos for about three years now. At the beginning, many of the sessions were with familiar contemporaries like Ingram or long-time heroes like Jerry Jeff Walker. Now, you’re working with such a wide range of artists: Charley Crockett, Flatland Cavalry, and Shakey Graves. How essential has it been to work with a wide range of acts?
BR: That’s maybe the best thing about it for me. I’m not by nature out there beating the bushes and meeting folks. Charlie was a lot more like that than me. He traveled a lot more than I did. The thread that holds it all together though is the songs. That’s the only way I interact with the music at all. That’s the basis of it all. We have kind of a cultural history through the songs and the artists here in Texas. It connects us all. Like I didn’t know Alejandro of Shakey Graves before he came in. It’s always my belief that we’re connected through this Texas and Austin community. Sometimes you’re not sure how, but you know it’s there. He came in and played through a few things, but then he played this Roger Miller song. He knew more about Roger Miller than I did. I wouldn’t have necessarily guessed that based off the music of his I’d heard in the past.
TM: Y’all did that Willie Nelson Birthday Celebration in April, too. That felt like a real organic event—just a bunch of musicians and singers coming together to sing some Willie Nelson songs. Do you plan on organizing more events like this in the future?
BR: I hope so. Kelly and I have done our holiday show for twenty years now. The first time we did it, it was an excuse to get together with Charlie, friends, and family and to play music. It was more fun to have other folks there to experience it. That turned into something that other people enjoyed enough too that it continued happening in a way that I could never really imagine. That’s what happened [with the Willie celebration]. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t really about Willie. It was celebrating those artists. I’m thankful for Willie for providing that space for us to get together.
TM: You reissued Wrapped earlier this year for its twentieth anniversary. So many of the songs on Wrapped have stayed relevant throughout your career. You’re playing so many of them every night. But I still imagine there were things about that album you forgot about over time. Did the process of reissuing the album stir up some old memories?
BR: Yeah. There were a lot of things. The biggest revelation was just playing some of the songs that I hadn’t played in a long, long time and still thinking that they were pretty good. The whole thing, it was a wonderful experience. It takes you back to when you were younger and puts you in that headspace. You know, that record wasn’t a success by hardly any measure at the time, but I’m really proud of what it is now. You can look at it in a different context. I’m very proud of that.