End of an Era: On Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis Announcing Split

Texas music couple Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis announced the end of their marriage late last week, and with everything else going on, it may have been easy to miss the news, or to maybe gloss over just how significant this news is, and regard it simply as a personal matter. Because when it comes to Kelly and Bruce, they weren’t just husband and wife. They were a musical duo who happened to find some of their greatest success as performers later in their careers, and together.

“After a lot of thought and work, we have decided to end our marriage,” the two said in a joint statement. “The two of us, now and always, love each other very much. Though this is hard, we are looking forward to our lives together as parents of our four beautiful kids. Our lives are so entwined we know we will work together, be a family together and continue to be in each other’s corner as we try to embrace whatever else this crazy world brings. Peace and love. Bruce and Kelly.”

If you came here looking for the salacious details behind the split, sincere apologies. No such information is available . But similar to the recent news of Robert Earl Keen retiring from touring, this announcement from Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis feels like the end of an era.

Kelly and Bruce can be considered members of Texas music’s first couple in a royal court of sorts, and their separation helps mark the end of that Camelot period. Bruce’s brother Charlie Robison was also a successful performer and songwriter, but announced in September of 2018 that due to vocal issues stemming from surgery, he was retiring from music. Charlie was once married to Emily Erwin of The (Dixie) Chicks, who was a bandmate of Natalie Maines, the daughter of producer and steel guitar player Lloyd Maines, who produced those early Chicks records, and is considered a founding father of Texas music.

Bruce Robison wrote the #1 song “Travelin’ Solider,” which became final #1 on country radio for The Chicks. Bruce and Charlie Robison’s sister Robyn Ludwick is also an acclaimed singer, songwriter, and performer. So the history runs deep here.

Bruce Robison also wrote the #1 song “Angry All The Time” for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, George Strait’s hit “Wrapped” from 2006, and has also written songs for Lee Ann Womack, Dierks Bentley, Aaron Watson, Jack Ingram, Josh Turner, and more. He also recorded his own solo records of course starting in 1996—the same year he married Kelly Willis.

Meanwhile, Kelly Willis signed to MCA Records and released her first solo record in 1990 called Well Traveled Love. Her career was met with critical acclaim as both a singer/songwriter and more of a traditionalist performer. But by the time she married Bruce in 1996, her time on MCA Records had come to an end with no significant commercial success, though sincere traction among alt-country, Americana, and Texas music fans.

Both Kelly and Bruce were always going to be too good and too principled to find big mainstream traction, but it was their coming together as a duo that raised the biggest blip on the national radar, and according to some fans, resulted in their greatest work. It wasn’t just a marriage of convenience, either in life, on the road, or in the studio. Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison equaled something greater than the sum of their parts.

They first collaborated together on a Christmas album called Happy Holidays in 2006. Subsequently, their Holiday shows have become a tradition for both them and many of their fans over the years. In fact, December 2021’s annual holiday shows in Texas might end up being the last time the two perform together.

But it was their 2013 duo album Cheater’s Game that upped the ante for this married country music couple, and for some listeners, had them working backwards through the Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis discographies, discovering their solo careers for the first time. Their cover of “Border Radio” originally recorded by The Blasters hit just about all those true Texas music feels, as did their rendition of “9,999,999 Tears” originally cut by Dickey Lee. The album also went #29 on the country charts.

Their ability to mix smart cover songs with original material is what made this duo so enjoyable and resonant. It’s like they were born to sing together, and brought such smarts to how they approached each song. This wasn’t a side project. From their first record together, henceforth Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis was the primary recording project in both of their careers, releasing Our Year in 2014, and the well-received Beautiful Lie in 2019. You really can’t go wrong with any of the Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis collaborations.

Who knows, maybe the end of the marriage does not mean the end of the music from these two. We can only hope, somewhat selfishly. If George Jones and Tammy Wynette could make it post divorce, maybe these two can as well.

Meanwhile, Bruce Robison continues to build an independent-minded musical support web through his project called The Next Waltz, which releases videos, compilation records, and works as a label and management company for musicians, by musicians. He’s brought a lot of passion to the project over the last few years, and it continues to gain traction for music from Texas.

But it felt a little flippant to let this news slide by simply as a passing footnote, or a piece of gossip. Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis made something beautiful together through the years, and no matter where it goes from here, it deserves to be reflected back on fondly. It was great while it lasted, and it will be great for forever, even if it only continues to live in our music catalogs and memories.

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