Cheater’s Game – Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis

Spotlight on The Americana Music Festival and Conference # 6

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For me this album is an important piece in the puzzle that is the Americana Music Festival Awards 2013.  The only nominees whose music I hadn’t heard (nor even heretofore being aware of the pair).

Nevertheless, it is a fact that Bruce Robison and Kelly released an album last year called Cheater’s Game.  The album has been nominated for best Americana album of the year, thereby “competing” with fellow nominees Buddy & Jim (Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale), From The Ground Up (John Fullbright), O’ Be Joyful (Shovels & Rope) and Old Yellow Moon (Emmylou Harris/Rodney Crowell) – fine company indeed.

The couple’s second Americana nomination is for Best Duo and Group of the Year – with peers Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell and Shovels & Rope.

Now it appears that neither Willis nor her husband Robison has made a record since 2008, both taking time off to raise children.

I’ve finally got hold of this album.  So what’s all the fuss about?

The album is produced and mixed by Brad Jones at Alex The Great in Nashville.  The playing is perfectly integrated and sublime.  Key players are Robison and Jones (guitars), Fred Eltringham (drums), Eamon McLaughlin (assorted strings) and Pete Finney (banjo) – bass duties seem to be shared.  (At this point I need to say that the packaging of the CD is generally excellent but for one matter – the writing is so small for the musicians and songwriting credits, even reading glasses and natural sun light do not reveal all).  Vocals are pretty much shared between the couple.  Songwriting credits across the thirteen tracks are generally Robison solo or co-writing efforts, as well as covers of material by Dave Alvin, Don Williams, Hays Carll, Razzy Bailey, Robert Earl Keen and Lawrence Shoberg

The title track opens the collection – a Robison collaboration with Liz Foster and Savannah Welch of The Trishas.  It is a classic, late-night, country torch song which contains a pivotal pedal steel guitar.  Willis’ voice is key here, perfectly suited to the heartache and pain contained therein.  Now the first CD I ever bought was a Dave Alvin disc which included “Border Radio”, a personal favourite of mine and one ingrained into my psyche.  Here the treatment is more uptempo than the original, a light acoustic jive which works surprisingly well.   Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way” follows with Robison taking the singing duties – a lilting treatment with tasteful banjo and mandolin from Finney.  Pretty harmonica introduces Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home,” with a soulful violin – a beautifully-crafted love song with Willis and Robison’s harmonies a highlight.

Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears,” is a more traditional country song compared with the rest of the material – again the playing is a sheer delight – guaranteed to get in your head and come out as a sing along when you least expect it.  “Leavin'” starts off with a stripped back sound – a nice shuffle with brushes on the drum and plaintive, whining pedal steel – this is a good example of the quality of Robison’s songwriting craft.  The momentum is maintained with “But I Do” – here banjo is omnipresent.  Robert Earl Keen’s  “No Kinda Dancer” works beautifully, a sweet and exquisitely tender oom pah pah – the harmonies between the two a treasure.

As mentioned in the clip below – “Lifeline” is a favourite live set closer for the duo – a grassy, singalong ballad composition from Robison.  Probably the catchiest song off the album.  Willis’ voice on “But It Do” is beautiful on the verses and Robison adds depth at chorus time – pedal again demanding on your senses.  “Born to Roll” builds to a locomotive rocker, twin vocals steering down the track (pardon the pun) – it just makes you want to get on board.

“Waterfall” is another sharing of vocals, a plaintive and emotional lost-love story, with a classic treatment.  And there’s “Dreamin'”  – for me perfectly crafted and arranged – a piece that leaves you wanting more as the album closer.

Cheater’s Game is a strident and beautiful achievement – one of the finest albums I’ve heard this year.  Seeing them live at the AmericanFest in Nashville next month will be a treat.

 

Here’s a couple of the tracks live – “Leavin'” and “Lifeline”.

(Robison released his second album, Wrapped, on his own label, Boar’s Nest Records this year).

 

Thanks to Thom Jurek for his review at allmusic.com for the inspiration

Author: Rob Dickens

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