AUSTIN, Texas — Kelly Willis said she'd worn "a Saturday night dress" — a cherry-red number with a cartoon-dog print — but in fact it was Tuesday, the first evening of the annual South by Southwest music festival here.
Historically, opening night is when the locals get to shine before the bulk of SXSW's big-name headliners arrive. And though Tuesday's schedule also featured iTunes-sponsored performances by Coldplay and Imagine Dragons, the tradition held this year: At the Main club on Austin's bustling 6th Street, Willis and her husband, Bruce Robison, ran through the kind of winningly low-key set that can only come from folks who drove to their show from home.
"We left our set list in the car," Willis admitted onstage, "but we don't need it."
Each half of this Austin-based country-music couple built a career independent of the other, with her string of critically acclaimed solo albums and the hit singles he's written for such A-list acts as Tim McGraw and the Dixie Chicks (whose Emily Robison was married to Bruce's brother Charlie).
But last year they joined forces for "Cheater's Game," a lovely set of duets fashioned after classics by George Jones and Tammy Wynette and Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. And backed by a three-piece band — including a bassist with a Texas-shaped sticker on his instrument — the singers worked their appealing duo vibe, even if Robison was forced to play sitting down after tweaking his ankle, he explained, in a game of basketball with his and Willis' 13-year-old son.
"I'm not pretending to be a bluesman," he pointed out.
Their rendition of "9,999,999 Tears," originally popularized by Dickey Lee, was crisp yet relaxed, while "But I Do" had vocal harmonies as precise as they were full of feeling. The couple ventured beyond the album to do Robison's "Wrapped," a hit when George Strait recorded it in 2006, and "Harper Valley P.T.A.," the late-1960s country-crossover tune that Robison said made a perfect combination with his wife's voice.
Willis' loving response? "Don't build it up too much, babe."
Another local roots-music type, Amy Cook, seemed similarly happy to represent the home team later Tuesday during her gig at Stephen F's Bar.
"How many of you are from Austin?" she asked, to which a half-dozen or so hands raised. "Good for you." Everyone else, she added, should consider moving. "I can't wait till we're neighbors."
Yet where Robison and Willis appeared totally laid-back amid familiar surroundings, Cook, who moved to Texas from L.A., put across a nervy intensity in songs that layered her astringent singing over skeletal guitar.
The sound — especially in a striking cover of "Dreaming" by Blondie — was stripped-down but powerful: a small flash of inspiration before SXSW's bright lights turn on.