Twenty years ago, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis resisted the idea of performing together.
The Texas-based singer-songwriter couple already had successful careers on their own.
Willis’ rich voice could be heard regularly on country music radio stations, and Robison had released three albums full of songs that would be recorded by George Strait, Tim McGraw and the Dixie Chicks.
“We had no desire to be a duo,” Willis said. “We just wanted to be, you know, happily in a relationship together. So, that seemed like a bad idea.”
But in 1999, the couple played a few intimate shows along with friends and family during the holiday season, performing classic Christmas songs and some non-holiday tunes. They thought it was a one-time deal, but the next year, fans and friends wanted more. The Holiday Shindig was born.
Now, for the 20th anniversary of their Holiday Shindig, Robison and Willis are adding Baton Rouge to the tour. They will perform at the Manship Theatre as part of the Red Dragon Songwriter Series on Friday.
Willis and Robison married in 1996. Then, Willis had recorded three albums for MCA Records and had found some success in country radio and Robison was a promising songwriter on the Texas country and folk scene.
In 1999, Willis released “What I Deserve,” an album that featured two of Robison’s songs, “Not Forgotten You” and “Wrapped.” The album earned critical acclaim and reset the trajectory of Willis’ career. She released another acclaimed album, “Easy,” in 2002.
Robison and Willis were musical kindred spirits, she said, and they finally gave in to performing together and loved it.
“When we started performing together, it was better than we thought it would be,” she said. “Now, we still really love performing solo, but when we're together it feels like, you know, we're better.”
They have since released four albums together. Their most recent, “Beautiful Lie,” dropped in June. Willis’ sultry voice stars on “If I Had a Rose” and “Nobody’s Perfect.”
“We have different things we bring to it, and we're able to let the other one shine on what they do,” she said.
Robison might not be a household name, but his songs have earned millions of plays on country music radio. George Strait recorded “Desperately” and “Wrapped,” while Tim McGraw and Faith Hill scored a huge hit with his song “Angry All the Time” and the Dixie Chick recorded a popular version of “Travelin’ Soldier.”
Along the way, the couple had four children. The oldest is in college, and the youngest is in the eighth grade, making it easier for the couple to expand their touring schedule.
"We still need to be around so that they don't just start getting into all kinds of crazy trouble,” Willis said. “But it's a little easier.”
Over the years, their Holiday Shindig has grown. In the early years, they recorded a short Christmas album that they sold just around Austin, Texas, record stores, sort of like a Christmas card for their fans, Robison said in Texas Monthly magazine. In 2006, it was expanded to 11 songs and released nationally with a sad Louvin Brothers holiday song and an original, “Oklahoma Christmas,” about all the ways Robison embarrassed himself when visiting Willis’ family for the holidays.
In 2014, Robison paid for the Holiday Shindig to be professionally filmed. Texas country legend Joe Ely and contemporary folk singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin joined them for the show, which aired on PBS.
While they were reluctant to play together years ago, Willis cannot imagine the holidays without their Shindig tour.
“With this much tradition, it really has become a part of our life,” she said. “It would feel wrong not doing shows this time of year.”
BRUCE ROBISON AND KELLY WILLIS' HOLIDAY SHINDIG
7:30 p.m. Friday
Manship Theatre, 100 Lafayette St.
manshiptheatre.org or (225) 344-0334