This Year, Willis Is Home for The 'Holidays'

Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis's holiday show is an annual tradition, and this time they have an album to showcase.
Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis's holiday show is an annual tradition, and this time they have an album to showcase. (Rykodisc)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006

Amid the annual flurry of Christmas and Hanukkah pop shows come former Virginian/now Texan Kelly Willis and husband/singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. They'll be at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Dec. 13 and at the Birchmere on Dec. 14 to support their aptly named Rykodisc CD, "Happy Holidays."

Calling from Austin, where she has lived since the early '90s, Willis says the show began six years ago when she and Robison, along with his brother Charlie and Charlie's wife, Emily, decided to do a hometown holiday concert. "And then Emily's sister Martie did it, too," Willis says. It should be noted here that Emily Robison and Martie Maguire are two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks. According to Willis, "They had just become these superstars, and we didn't even bill them. It was just a neat little family thing."

Neat enough that Willis and Robison have kept doing the show (sans Chicks) every year since, in Austin, Dallas, Houston and Amarillo. "But we've never gone out of state with it. Ryko let us do a Christmas EP to sell at our shows and on our Web site and then kept trying to get a full album, but we could never get it done in time for the holidays," Willis says. "We finally got it together this year and thought, 'If they're going to give it a national release, perhaps we ought to go play some of our favorite places.' "

"Happy Holidays" is a charmer, with Willis's beautifully melancholy rendition of "In the Bleak Midwinter" ("So sad, so depressing -- my favorite kind of song," she laughs) and the seductive "Santa Baby." Robison stands out on the Buck Owens classic "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy" and "Please Daddy Don't Get Drunk This Christmas," which neither of them knew was written by Washingtonians Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert. "We just learned it from a John Denver record," Willis says, adding, "That's cool!"

Also cool is Willis and Robison's duet on Frank Loesser's "Baby It's Cold Outside," one of the songs that inspired them to do a Christmas show in the first place, "just to sing it," she says. Equally noteworthy is the Robison original, "Oklahoma Christmas," pointing to the perils of accidentally letting slip the occasional "Oh, Lord" and "Jesus Christ" while gathered around the family Christmas dinner table.

"Completely true," Willis says. "We weren't even married yet -- or maybe it was the first year -- and Bruce came up to my mother's mother's house in Oklahoma. My great-aunts are there and they're all very religious, and we're playing some board game and Bruce kept going, 'Oh, Lord!' It wasn't an actual cuss word, but it was stuff that was really making my great-aunts sit up stiffer in their chairs. I'd keep kicking Bruce under the table, and he had no idea he was doing anything! It was something most people wouldn't think about twice, but, in my family, you're taking the Lord's name in vain there. It was really kind of awkward, but he wrote this funny song. I had the hardest time singing those words on stage at first, but I've gotten over it now."

A military brat, Willis spent her formative years in Annandale, where she fell in love with rockabilly. On a senior class trip to Ocean City, she cut a demo of Elvis Presley's "Teddy Bear" in a pay recording booth and used it to get into then-boyfriend and drummer Mas Palermo's rockabilly band. "Mas, who I ended up marrying, was in the Vibrato Brothers, and they'd just split. He was forming a new band [the Fireballs], and I figured I'll just jump in here and do a little take so they can see what I sound like. I still have the demo -- found it the other day, though I don't know if I want the world to hear it."

After developing a small following here, the Fireballs moved to Austin, and Willis eventually signed as a solo artist with MCA, though the label never quite knew what to do with her smart alt-country sound. In 1999, she moved to Rykodisc and released "What I Deserve," which Time magazine called the year's "smartest, most worthwhile country CD." By then Willis was married to Robison and had started a family that now numbers four kids (including twin girls). They record separately, with Robison having added success as a songwriter with a pair of No. 1 hits, the Dixie Chicks' "Travelin' Soldier" and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's "Angry All the Time."

Willis and Robison are also fairly strict about the shows they do together. "We're not a duo," she says. "And we try really hard to only do shows together for the holidays." Which, of course, makes them a treat.

Listen to an audio clip of Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison

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Here are a few more holiday albums and concerts with local ties taking place this weekend:

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