Married for 17 years, Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison have kept their recording careers separate, aside from a low-profile Christmas album. Hearing Cheater’s Game, it’s hard to fathom why, because their talents are so perfectly matched. Robison, writer of country chart-toppers for the likes of George Strait, the Dixie Chicks, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, would be hard pressed to find a more sympathetic duet partner for his lyrics than Willis, who earned acclaim in the ’90s as an exquisite singer with a keen appreciation for left-of-center material. They mix it up on the seven Robison originals included here: Sometimes Willis takes the lead with support from Robison (“Ordinary Fool” and “Waterfall”), sometimes vice-versa (“Lifeline” and “Leavin’”), and sometimes they harmonize in full-on duet throughout (“But I Do” and “Dreamin,’” the latter a gorgeous ballad co-written with Miles Zuniga of Fastball). It all works because Robison’s easygoing folksiness a perfect foil to Willis’ emotionally expressive style.
They’re perhaps even better on the album’s half-dozen brilliant cover selections, which include standouts by fellow Texans Robert Earl Keen (“No Kinda Dancer”) and Hayes Carll (“Long Way Home”) as well as old-school country gems (Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way”) and roots-rock classics (Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio”). Every single track connects, especially Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears,” a top-five country hit for Dickey Lee in 1976; the song’s melodic immediacy threatens to overshadow its underlying heartbreak, but Willis and Robison inhabit the both the pop and the pathos naturally, as if they were born to sing together.