For the last few years, Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison have celebrated Christmas with a string of jolly holiday shows around their home state of Texas. But this year, everybody’s invited to join the festivities.
That’s because Willis and Robison have wrapped their latest project, Happy Holidays. The seven-song EP captures the jovial (and sometimes sultry) spirit of the holidays and so does their tour, with upcoming stops in New Braunfels, Corpus Christi, Houston and Fort Worth.
“It’s a pretty easygoing and relaxing time,” Willis says. “For me, they’re the most fun shows I do all year, because performing with Bruce, there’s less pressure involved. I don’t worry so much about stuff. If I drop the ball, he’s going to pick it up or else he’s going to make fun of me,” she giggles. “So, it’s just fun. We have a good time, and the crowds are in the same mood. It’s like we’re at a party instead of some show where there are expectations. Anything goes.”
Though the set list is divided among their individual regular set lists and the holiday material, Robison has one particular favorite.
“‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ might be the reason we did the record at all,” he says with conviction. “It might be the reason for the holiday shows as well. Just to have the chance to sing that song. It’s so wonderful. … I don’t act, but it’s as much like acting as it is singing. The story goes up and down and in and out. It’s really just brilliant, the way that it’s done. It’s a challenge to sing it and an inspiration from a writing standpoint.”
Robison knows writing, as the man behind Tim McGraw’s “Angry All the Time” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Travelin’ Soldier.” Willis says that their oldest child Deral’s favorite tune of Dad’s is “Blame It on Me,” which appeared on Robison’s Country Sunshine album (and Lee Ann Womack’s Something Worth Leaving Behind). Deral’s younger siblings, Benjamin and Abigail, are just 8 months old.
“We’ve got the big family together now,” Willis says. “As far as we know, this is our complete family, so this is the first year with the family the way it’s going to be forever. It’s pretty special. We’re going to spend some of it with family and some of it here at home. It’s going to be nice.”
In addition to a slot at MerleFest, both of them are planning solo albums next year, and Robison already has a stack of songs ready. However, all seven songs on Happy Holidays (which is available only at select Texas music stores and on their individual Web sites) are covers.
For this, Robison blames his penchant for writing mostly sad songs.
“The way that Christmas songs are written, and the way I like hearing them, is absent of all the things that I try to put in the songs — which are the complications of life. That’s why Christmas songs, to me, represent an ideal. That’s the beauty of them,” he says. “That goes for the holiday season, too. You celebrate the ideal about what we’d all like to be and focus on all the wonderful things that have happened in our lives.”
Willis says, “Christmas songs are all classics, so what’s more intimidating than trying to write a classic? It’s not like writing my own songs, where they’re my quirky little songs and they don’t have to be anything but my songs. But to write a Christmas song is like trying to write a Christmas song for Frank Sinatra.”
Still, she turns in a cozy interpretation of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” while Robison straddles the line of serious and irreverent with “Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas.” The album was recorded in Austin where they reside and have built a strong following.
“We love living here,” Robison says. “We’re so lucky in so many ways. We have been able to stay here and also been able to get some songs cut, which is really hard to do if you’re not living in Nashville. We love it here, and we make believe there’s snow on the ground.”