Robison, Willis share four kids but have separate music careers 
Web Posted: 08/29/2007 12:05 AM CDT

(Kevin Geil/Express-News)

Singers/songwriters Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis spend time with children Abby and Ben, 4-year-old twins, and Dodie, 6, in their Austin home.

On the Web
• Bruce Robison’s Website
•  Kelly Willis’ Website

John Goodspeed
Express-News Staff Writer

AUSTIN — Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis could portray the everyday American married couple — if the average family had four children under age 6.

They rifle the fridge for snacks for hungry mouths.

They worry the oldest is playing too much on his Game Boy.

They complain about the high cost of soccer classes.

They look forward to precious time together after putting the brood to bed.

They have ups and downs in their relationship.

Unlike most couples, though, they use songs to celebrate the good and cope with the bad in their lives.

Willis wrote “Sweet Little One,” about a buoyant relationship that speaks a lot to Robison, on “Translated From Love,” her critically acclaimed seventh album released in June.

During a difficult time before getting married 10 years ago, Robison wrote “Wrapped,” about a love that burns beyond rejection. It became George Strait’s latest No. 1 single in July.

“It’s like it’s wonderful that my parents got divorced and I wrote ‘Angry All the Time’ (a No. 1 hit for Tim McGraw) and we broke up and I wrote ‘Wrapped.’ And wonderful for the Vietnam War and I got ‘Travelin’ Soldier’ (the Dixie Chicks’ No. 1 song),” Robison said with more than a little sarcasm.

“Thank goodness for all that horrible misery,” Willis said with a laugh, adding a silver lining to Robison’s dark clouds.

Robison, 41, and Willis, 38, are the closest thing to a royal couple in Texas country music besides his brother, Charlie Robison, and his wife, Emily Robison, one of the Dixie Chicks (although Charlie and Emily never perform in shows together).

Robison and Willis do, but just during the Christmas holidays, something they started doing in 1999 in a show with his big brother.

They tried performing together at other times but it did not fit their desire for separate careers, which were established before they met.

“People started booking us thinking two for one. It started becoming a thing,” Willis said. “We wanted to get on bills on our own, and we were never going to do that if we kept going together.

“So we stopped doing that. We’re not a duo. We have a special show we do at Christmastime.”

At those shows, both bring their own songs; holiday music makes up the third leg of the set with them singing seasonal classics such as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

“That makes the holiday shows more special for me,” Robison said. “We settled on something good for us. And now that’s part of our holiday tradition.”

While they do not collaborate in songwriting, they do occasionally sing on each other’s records and admire the other’s work. They also inspire self-discovery.

From him, Willis learned to loosen up and enjoy herself while performing. From her, Robison found the importance of approaching recording projects with more professionalism and surrounding himself with talent.

“People ask all the time why we don’t work together more,” Robison said. “Man, I don’t want to work together. She was always really much further along in her career than I was so I got to see how things worked (in the music industry).

“Kelly has this space for her career and I’m really proud of her. She made a record with no input from me, didn’t even cut any of my songs, and that’s really the way I like it.”

“I just feel like it’s a recipe for disaster,” Willis said. “I don’t know how couples work together on a daily basis. Ask anybody who’s working with their spouse on a project, like remodeling their kitchen. It’s not easy having two people in charge.”

They don’t mix music much with other members of their immediate family, either, which includes Robison’s sister, singing songwriter Robyn Ludwick, and her husband, John Ludwick, who plays bass in Robison’s and Willis’ bands.

Both Robisons, Willis and Ludwick record at Bruce Robison’s studio, Premium Recording Service.

Robison and Willis do work closely, though, when it comes to the children — Dodie, 6; twins Abby and Ben, 4; and Joseph, 19 months.

Because of the rigors of touring and promotion surrounding a CD release, Willis delayed recording her last album when she found out she was pregnant with Joseph.

She only books multiple dates, never more than a week at a stretch, about twice a month. They juggle schedules to keep dates they’re both playing to a minimum so one can be with the children. They get help from a nanny, too.

“When we’re together, we just take care of the kids, try to keep the house clean,” Willis said.

Music is a big part of play time at their home, in the historic Hyde Park neighborhood north of the University of Texas, with games such as freeze dancing, where they play guitar and sing and the kids have to stop with the music.

“Abby writes songs all the time with her twin brother,” Willis said. “Ben was saying today, I’ve got some bad news and some good news, Mommy.

“The bad news is I lost a game on my Game Boy. But the good news is I wrote this song you haven’t heard yet.”

Seeing music through the children’s eyes is reawakening a passion Robison has not felt since he was a teenager.

“I used to listen to pop music and hate it,” he said. “Then we were at the beach and my daughter and another girl were dancing to Fergie and Gwen Stefani. Now when I hear it on the radio, I go oh — there’s that song the girls were dancing to.

“Now I’m open to different kinds of music and it’s like this stuff is brand new.

“‘Knock Three Times’ came on the radio and we’ve been singing it for three days.”

“Our kids love it,” Willis said.

“They think Tony Orlando and Dawn are the coolest thing they ever heard,” he added.

Robison continues to write songs, hoping for the next big hit, which just might be influenced by the kids.

Enjoying a new freedom to record and tour more now that the children are a little older, Willis sums it up: “I feel like I have the best of both worlds with a great family and great music.”

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