Kelly Willis and her band play Atlanta’s SOB’s April 11, supporting What I Deserve (Ryokdisc), an alternative-country masterpiece. She’s been called an “angel with hell-scorched wings,” and the epithet fits this Austin singer-songwriter-guitarist quite well.
On her first album in five years, Willis takes the time to develop herself as a writer and artist. She wrote or co-wrote six stunning gems of the twelve songs featured here. And the others are judiciously chosen covers, such as her lovely take on the love song “Time Has Told Me” written by late folk rocker Nick Drake. She said she couldn’t see putting out an album full of crap and having critics say once again that she showed a lot of promise. No danger of that. This is a solid effort.
I caught up with Kelly on the road and she had plenty to tell of her trials and tribulations on the road to stardom. MCA Nashville dropped her in 1994, after an early career marked by heavy-handed Nashville production. “We knew it was going to happen, and we wanted it to happen … We still just weren’t seeing eye-to-eye,” after the third album was released. “We did make two videos for it, but when we released that second video, it was over. They didn’t even really try.”
A month later, Willis was nominated for an American Country Music Award and named one of People Magazine ‘s 50 Most Beautiful People. “Right after they dropped me, I had some of the biggest stuff ever happen for my career,” she said.
“I started singing when I was 17, and I was 20 when I got that deal (with MCA),” she said. “I was really just developing as an artist. I didn’t know that Nashville’s not a really great place to be a creative, developing artist … When I got dropped I thought it was a great opportunity for me to just start from scratch. I was going to try and write as much as possible, and have a stronger focus, a stronger point of view.”
This has worked out well for Willis. What I Deserve contains only the most essential, purest notes, from Kelly’s angelic voice to Amy Farris’ extraordinary fiddle and mandolin, to the solid rhythm section of Rafael Gayol on drums and John Ludwick on bass. Production this time around is handled by Dave McNair, whose past credits include producing or engineering for Bruce Springsteen and Belinda Carlisle.
The new album begins with a song about a “really bad boyfriend” she left five years ago when everything in her life changed: “Take Me Down” comes across as one of the most buoyant indictments of bad love ever recorded. She chronicles a lonely moment in the title cut “What I Deserve.” And she talks about family, home, and time in “Talk Like That.” Today, Kelly’s married to singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, a partnership which she seems to thrive in. Bruce contributes “Wrapped” and “Not Forgotten You,” two of the loveliest songs here.
Willis finds writing time-consuming because of her striving for perfection. She said she tries to balance her songs so that they’re based on personal experience, but don’t sound like Dear Diary moments. “I’m not real prolific, it’s not real easy for me … There are some people like that, where you think, ‘What a freak,’ but they’re great.”
Living in Austin since 1987, Willis says she feels “…like I’m a part of the community. I really feel like I belong here. And they have kept me alive over the last ten years in the musical world. When if I’d been living in another town I could have easily just fallen away, and who knows what I’d be doing right now. I love this town, and I’ll probably live here forever.”
During her childhood Willis moved around various U.S. Army bases and felt little of that attachment to place, so having a home was a welcome change. “I was a pretty shy kid,” Willis recalls, and music changed her. “It was like a comfort and a release for me, to have someplace where I could be special. Because most of the time, I was just so shy that I would blend into the background if I could, or stand behind my friends … It was terrifying, but it was also something I felt like I was good at. So, it kept me going. When you sing onstage every night, and then you end up talking to people after the show — as terrifying and horrible as that was for me — now it’s not.”
Listening to Willis talk about her life and her love of music now, one can barely believe the incredible transformation. Who would see this shy Army brat blossoming into one of the 50 Most Beautiful People?
What this new record, and this tour, prove to her audience — and it’s a wider one every minute — that Kelly Willis delivers the goods. That pure, sweet country music can come with an alternative, pop feel to it that defies classification.