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Kelly Willis

Rykodisc

Some guy down in Texas called her a “female Wilco.” Some guy up in New York called her “this cowgirl who can sing the blues.” And some guy from a shiny checkout-aisle mag called her one of the “50 Most Beautiful People.” Kind, generous words all, but after touring behind her commercially and critically hullabalooed last disc, 1999’s What I Deserve, Annandale, Va.-born Kelly Willis was sick of them. And instead of fretting over what pose she should strike in response, what songs she should sing next, and what spangly gown she should wear to the CMAs, she decided to do what felt natural: Head to Austin, Texas, start a family, and rediscover the music that got her interested in this bullshit-loaded biz. The significantly stripped Easy, her fifth full-length disc, features the blond waifish one singing the way the Big Guy intended her to: with lusty, ticker-tearing fullness in front of a gutbucket C&W backing band. She may indeed be blessed with a 2-year-old son (Deral) and a faithful husband (frequent collaborator Bruce Robison), but Willis is still scarily convincing when crooning as if she were lost in the wilderness, with not a soul left who loved her. Easy opens with the seemingly plucky “If I Left You,” a self-penned gallop on which Willis gently threatens, “If I left you/I wouldn’t stay gone so long/If I left you/I’d worry how you got along.” But there’s nothing plucky about it, of course. Lloyd Maines (father of Dixie Chick Natalie) soon gets a little lower with his Papoose guitar, and Willis gives up the brave face: “But you left me/Alone here in my misery/That’s not something I would do/If I left you.” When she settles in with that syllable-stretching “misery,” gosh, it kind of makes you hope that Deral and Bruce are treating Mom like a queen back at the ranch. Easy has plenty of other mighty fine moments, too. In a fiery gal-vs.-guys hoedown showdown, Willis matches her pipes against those of high-lonesome Vince Gill and “Man of Constant Sorrow” Dan Tyminski on a cover of porch-pickin’ banjo-thumper “You Can’t Take It With You.” And for the grand weeper royal—and Easy’s best track—Willis goes head-to-head with fellow SweeTart of the rodeo Alison Krauss on the woe-is-me slow “Not What I Had in Mind.” After first hearing the dueling chanteuses pair up for the chorus—”Loving you now that you’re no longer mine/No, it’s not what I had in mind/Letting you go and then crossing that line”—I had to listen over and over again just to make sure it was really that good. And, hell, if those word guys from Texas, New York, and People can put the proper poetry to that bit of magic, then they’ve certainly got me beat. —Sean Daly