Joyful and triumphant (with sprinkling of humor)
Musical couple Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison continue their tradition of holiday song and other cheer.
Everybody has a horror story to share about spending the holidays with their relatives. Local country musician Kelly Willis' involves going up to Oklahoma for Christmas shortly after her marriage to singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, who was meeting his wife's family for the first time. Mom. Great-aunts. Grandma. Uncle. Sister. Brother. All were there.
'They're super religious,' Robison says, slicing into a medium-rare bone-in ribeye at the Gristmill Restaurant in Gruene two weekends ago .
'They're not super-religious,' counters Willis, who's picking at a dinner of well-done grilled salmon. 'To Bruce, religious is super religious.'
As with many families, holiday time was killed with board- and card-games. Willis can't remember whether it was Rummy Cube or Kings in the Corner where Robison's luck went south, but she has no problem remembering how he reacted when it did.
'He was saying "Jesus" left and right,' says Willis, who was kicking him under the table and glaring at him all the while. 'My aunt was like … (Willis pulls her head back and makes a sour face, conveying a look of disapproval).'
Though Robison might not have made the best first impression, he did get a song out it. 'Okie Christmas' is a tender yet hilarious, almost spoken-word singalong, with a rich nugget about praying for the Sooners to beat the Longhorns. Willis and Robison sang it later that night at Gruene Hall, as part of the annual Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison Holiday Show, a multicity gig that comes to the Paramount Theatre in Austin on Saturday night and includes the Gourds as openers.
'Oh Lord,' Robison sang. 'I said, "Oh Lord" to your grandmomma/ Jesus Christ. I said, "Jesus Christ" again/ Goddamn. I said, "Pass the goddamn sweet potato pie,"/ I've gone and blown your Oklahoma Christmastime.'
'The first few times I couldn't even sing it,' Willis says of her back-up vocals. 'Now I just spit the words out.'
The Holiday Show was born in 1999, on a lark. Willis, Robison, and Robison's brother Charlie, also a country musician, booked a December concert at the old Caravan of Dreams, in Fort Worth, billed as the Robison Family Acoustic Christmas. Charlie's then-wife Emily and her sister Martie Maguire, both of the Dixie Chicks, eventually joined the mix.
'That took it to another level musically,' Robison says. 'Before that we'd just show up and sing.'
The show, which is really just an excuse to combine the forces of two distinct musicians and spend quality time together in the process, has taken on various permutations throughout the years. It's been all-acoustic and it's had a full-on band. It's had slide shows and movies. And it's had wide-ranging opening acts, from the Greencards to the Tosca String Quartet (plus surprise special guests, among them Jerry Jeff Walker, who sat in with Willis and Robison one year for a take on 'Mr. Bojangles').
'It's started to become a big part of the holidays,' Robison says. 'Every year we put up the tree. We go caroling. We walk the Trail of Lights (or String of Lights, as he refers to this year's downscaled version of the city's annual holiday light extravaganza in Zilker Park). Now, putting on these shows is a tradition, too.'
Except the Holiday Show isn't a family tradition. It's more like mom and dad's tradition. The themes of cheating and drinking that occasionally sneak into the show's nontraditional fare aren't exactly kid-appropriate. Add to that Willis and Robison's children - there are four of them, ranging from 3 to 8 years old - aren't too stoked on their parents' live sets.
'Our kids are totally bored of us,' Willis says. 'At our shows they're like, "Is this the end? How many more songs? Can we go?"'
What you can expect from the Holiday Show is a mix of covers, takes on non-mainstream holiday songs, and originals from Willis and Robison's respective catalogs. Willis always sings the pop standard 'Baby, It's Cold Outside.' Robison always sings 'Winter's Tale' by RB Morris. That night in Gruene, backed on and off by a five-piece band, they played 'Santa Baby,' with Willis sounding more like Marilyn Monroe than Eartha Kitt (that's a compliment), and Stevie Wonder's 'What Christmas Means to Me.' They also played Robison's 'Travelin' Soldier,' popularized by the Dixie Chicks, and Willis' 'Don't Know Why,' from her splendid, genre-bending last album, 'Translated From Love.'
'To me the show feels a lot like Austin,' Robison says. 'Not too corny, not too Christmasy. It's eclectic like the city.'
A CD of the show's mainstay songs was put out in '06. It includes 'Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas),' 'Blue Christmas,' and 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.' As for new CDs from Willis and Robison, well, Willis is frankly a little busy raising the kids, but Robison hopes to have something out the first half of next year. Rodney Crowell has produced some of the songs for it, and it features a band including Miles Zuniga and Joey Shuffield of Fastball.
What's striking about Willis and Robison is that they exemplify the ideal of opposites attracting. Willis, on first meeting, is quiet, even shy. Robison, meanwhile, likes to ham it up. That polarity-as-unifier is accentuated onstage.
'We get on each other's nerves while working together because we have completely different styles,' Willis says. 'We've walked onstage thinking, "I may be moving out when I get home tonight," and after two songs in felt stupid for being so mad, and by the end of the show we're madly in love.'
That's a beautiful thing considering Willis and Robison both come from divorced parents. Robison recalls the lead-up to the break-up between his mom and dad as a source for his dry humor, as a catalyst for his spreading of holiday cheer, and as a reason he so freely dropped those J-bombs at Willis' family's house in Oklahoma.
Robison says during Christmastime when he was 13, his father skipped out on pork chops with his family one night to eat dinner with his mistress. All the Robison kids knew what was up. 'Me and Charlie were really mad about it,' Robison says. When his dad returned home, a fight broke out. Robison's dad put an end to it all when he shouted, 'It's Christmas, goddammit.'
Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison Holiday Show featuring the Gourds is at 8 p.m. Saturday (doors at 7) at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave. $30-$43 (VIP $75). 866-977-6849, austintheatre.org.