Born on October 1, 1968, in Lawton, OK; daughter of a U.S. Army colonel; grew up in Annandale, VA; married twice, to Mas Palermo, a drummer (divorced 1991), and to Bruce Robison, a singer and songwriter, 1996; children: three. Addresses: Record company--Rykodisc Records, 3 Broadway, Beverly, MA 01915, website: http://www.rykodisc.com.
Country music's critical darling for well over a decade, Kelly Willis took the tough, edgy, country rock of Austin, Texas, brought it to the center of the country industry in Nashville, and then returned to Austin in the late 1990s so that she could keep her own creative vision foremost in her career. Once named one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world in People magazine's annual listing, Willis, virtually alone among country singers, showed up in magazines like Vogue during her stint in Nashville. But she kept the camera lens secondary to her singing, and purposefully continued to work out a musical style that combined rockabilly toughness with country heartache. Boldly inviting comparis ons between herself and the legendary country-pop singer Patsy Cline, she has in fact received several that were not unfavorable.
Willis was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1968, but as a young child she lived in several different places. Her father, a U.S. Army colonel, divorced her mother when Willis was nine years old. Her mother had played the piano and acted in musicals, and in her absence Willis began to sing to herself very frequently. In an interview with Rolling Stone's Karen Schoemer she recalled her father's reaction: "Well, that means you're happy," he said. "But actually," Willis continued, "I think ... it's more to help you if you're not happy. That's what it was for me."
She spent most of her teen years in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Annandale, Virginia, and remembers driving and singing along with a tape that had Patsy Cline's music on one side and blues-rock cult favorites NRBQ on the other. She talked her way into the job of lead vocalist with her boyfriend's rockabilly band, which was soon rechristened Kelly and the Fireballs. When the band moved to the musically overflowing city of Austin, Texas, in 1987, Willis went along. Her "very strict" father, she told Rob Tannenbaum of Rolling Stone, did not approve.
In Austin, Willis encountered a great variety of musical influences. The city, located squarely in the middle of country music's Texan heartland, had a music scene in the late 1980s that mixed the country heritage with an experimental spirit that ad mitted rockabilly, blues, and even the brittle gloom of alternative rock. Willis, who by 1990 was fronting a band called Radio Ranch, absorbed these influences and rose to the top of Austin's intensely competitive live-music hierarchy. She was only 21 yea rs old.
Word of Willis's talents reached country music's power brokers in several stages. She made a strong impression with a performance at Austin's South by Southwest music festival, an annual spring meeting of great importance in music industry circles. The Texan folk singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith, at the time well placed with MCA Nashville executives as a result of having written several hit songs for other country artists, brought Willis to their attention. Finally, MCA president Tony Brown, who had already championed innovative country newcomers Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett, called Willis to Nashville. After a showcase at the Bluebird Cafe, one of the Nashville nightspots most frequented by music industry figures, she was signed to MCA.
Willis's first album, 1990's Well Travelled Love, immediately vaulted into several critics' year-end, best-of-the-season lists. Her voice, full-throated and passionate, attracted the most attention. Jan Hoffman wrote in th e Village Voice that as a singer, Willis had "the smooth confidence of a power-lifter oiled for competition."
The album featured her bandmates from Austin and included several compositions by her drummer, Mas Palermo, whom Willis married. Other songs were written by Steve Earle ("Hole in My Heart"), whose compositional combination of belligerence and longin g proved ideal to Willis's own style, and by John Hiatt ("Drive South"), another artist who has fallen into the ferment-filled crack between country and rock.
Bob Millard's review of the album in Country Music noted that "Willis manages ... to capture on record all the vitality of Austin's young country scene." The wiry energy of many of the album's songs portrayed a strong rock influence. And while Willis's promotional literature tended to stress her rather tenuous connections with Patsy Cline (Cline and Willis were "fellow Virginians"), a different 1950s vocalist showed up in the cover iconography of Willis's album--the teenag ed rockabilly star Janis Martin.
Martin's "Bang Bang" became the title track of Willis's second album, released in 1992. Bang Bang featured mostly Nashville studio musicians in place of the Austin players, but otherwise remained similar to the singer's de but outing. The album contained another Steve Earle piece and a scorching cover of Texas rocker Joe Ely's "Settle for Love." But once more most of the songs were by Palermo and Willis's other Texas associates. Willis had always chosen songs primarily by t urning to her circle of musical associates. "I've always been part of a band when I made a record, and I'm used to the band technique of making music," she explained in her press biography.
Willis's first two albums generated considerable word-of-mouth praise in the industry and were moderately successful sellers. Her reputation extended beyond the field of country, as she opened on tour for alternative rock bands such as the Del Lords and the Silos, and placed two songs on the soundtrack of the hit film Thelma and Louise. She also landed a part in actor Tim Robbins's political satire Bob Roberts.
But wide exposure on country radio had for the most part eluded her, and with her third album, simply titled Kelly Willis, set for release in 1993, she and Tony Brown set out to reconcile her rock-inflected hard edges with the requirements of mainstream appeal. "Trying to find [songs] that are mainstream, but keep that edge and are real Kelly Willis, is hard," Brown told Billboard. "But after two years of looking, she found every one of them." Ve teran rock producer Don Was came on board as a result of a chance meeting with Brown in Los Angeles. He refrained from tampering much with Willis's basic style, choosing instead to expand the album's instrumental palette in subtle ways.
Willis gained some radio exposure with "Whatever Way the Wind Blows," composed by the offbeat rock singer Marshall Crenshaw, and with a remake of the Kendalls' lusty "Heaven's Just a Sin Away." The critics were as friendly as ever, with Karen Schoem er writing in Rolling Stone that Willis, "like Loretta Lynn or Patsy Cline, can spear your heart with the slightest catch, quaver or sigh." But neither single reached top chart levels. Still, Willis's appeal continued to build. Whenever Willis could be showcased visually, she attracted new fans. Her videos received considerable play on country cable television, and she was the subject of fashion spreads in Vogue, Interview, and Mademois elle magazines. "Kelly Willis has a face that you could look at a thousand times and never quite memorize," Schoemer wrote. As she continued to play her progressive brand of country music, Willis seemed near the goal of making her music as fasc inating as her appearance.
In the middle and late 1990s, however, the pendulum swung away from progressive country music in Nashville. Willis was dropped by MCA. "I was surprised by the timing of it becaues it happened right in the middle of working that third record, which I though was the best record I had made for them," Willis told the Ottawa Citizen. Willis stuck to her guns creatively, forming new alliances with members of the alternative country community. In 1995 she recorded a duet with Son Volt lead vocalist Jay Farrar, and she put together a band that included members of Son Volt and the other leading alternative country group of the day, the Jayhawks.
Willis released an EP with the sardonic title Fading Fast in 1996, but once again Nashville music-business politics threw a roadblock in her way. Her new label, A&M, was sold, and the new owners dropped Willis once aga in. An album that had been completed for A&M was never released.
Finally Willis gave up on Nashville and returned to Austin. Personal factors played a major role; Willis's marriage to Palermo had ended, and in late 1996 she married Texas singer and songwriter Bruce Robison, future brother-in-law of Dixie Chick Em ily Robison. It wasn't long before things started to turn around for Willis musically. She signed a contract with the independent Rykodisc label in 1999 and released What I Deserve. "Willis found more than her voice," commented Time in reviewing the album. "[S]he found a style to build a sturdy career on."
Indeed, by late 2003 Willis was an Austin institution--not a top-level national star, but an artist who had found her niche and continued to develop within it. Her 2002 album Easy showcased Willis's own songwriting an d featured an impressive roster of guest artists that included Vince Gill and virtuoso Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile. She and Robison became the parents of twins that year, making a total of three small children. Though that put a crimp in Willis's touring schedule, her holiday-season shows with Robison were becoming staples in Texas.
by James M. Manheim
Kelly Willis's Career
Progressive country vocalist; lead vocalist, Kelly and the Fireballs, c. 1986; lead vocalist, successful Austin, Texas band Radio Ranch, 1988-90; signed with MCA Records and released Well Travelled Love, 1990; moved to Austin, TX, mid-1990s; signed with Rykodisc label; released Easy, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Well Travelled Love MCA, 1990.
- Bang Bang MCA, 1991.
- Kelly Willis MCA, 1993.
- Fading Fast (EP), A&M, 1996.
- What I Deserve Rykodisc, 1999.
- Easy Rykodisc, 2002.
- Happy Holidays (EP), Boars Nest, 2003.
- Billboard, July 24, 1993.
- Country Music, September/October 1990; May/June 1991; September/October 1993.
- Ottawa Citizen, July 1,1999, p. F3.
- Rolling Stone, September 6, 1990; August 19, 1993; September 2, 1993.
- San Antonio Express-News, December 12, 2003, p. H15.
- Village Voice, August 7, 1990.
- Washington Post, April 16, 1999, p. N8.
- "Kelly Willis," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 4, 2004).
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from press materials furnished by Mark Rothbaum & Associates, Inc.