Country singers are rarely their own inventions, and Kelly Willis is no exception. As a student at Annandale High School, she thought that her voice was “strange, really loud and rough,” but someone else thought otherwise. That someone else, Mas Palermo (now Willis’ ex-husband), also had a rockabilly band, the Vibrato Champs, which would soon change its name to Kelly and the Fireballs, take part in the local rockabilly craze in the late ’80s, and eventually relocate to Austin, Texas. Soon, the singer was sharing a manager with Evan Johns, a fellow D.C. expat. But then rockabilly went out and the Fireballs were no more. It wasn’t long before Lone Star legend Nanci Griffith caught Willis’ new band, Radio Ranch, and was impressedespecially by Willis. Nashville beckoned. All of a sudden, at 20, Kelly Willis was a “country singer,” the pet project of one of the biggest wigs in Nashville.
The person that Music City invented is the person that Willis has spent the past six years trying to re-create. Speaking by phone from New Orleans, Willis quips that she considers Nashville “a teen-idol town,” and she’s provided proof that it’s true. The records of Willis’ country-star-in-waiting period, Well Traveled Love, Bang Bang, and Kelly Willis, contain no Dixie Chick forays into pop; in fact, Willis at her slickest still sounds more like Buck Owens than Shania Twain. But the early records also smack of micromanagement, shuffling between big-hat honky-tonk and it’s-over ballads as if an attractive Southern girl were genetically capable of only two emotions: glad and sad.
“I was very young,” Willis says of her Nashville days. “I was trying to figure out how I was going to express myself, how to say what I wanted and figure out what it was that I wanted. But there were just little subtle pressures to keep you from doing anything that was too outside. There were some little things that seemed huge.”
Willis herself never has become hugewhich has only caused all the little things in her past to seem large by comparison. Upon seeing her picture in Entertainment Weekly, Tim Robbins cast Willis as the folk-singing Clarissa Flan in his 1992 mockumentary Bob Roberts. Her press releases tend to mention Willis’ inclusion in People magazine’s “The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World” issue in 1994 as though it were a Grammy-level achievement. Tabloid readers may recall seeing Willis on the cover of the National Enquirer, caught leaving Lyle Lovett’s hotel room. And Lyle was still married to Julia!
So if Willis has any claim on celebrity at all, it’s one built upon a small stack of random media blips, none of which have helped nourish her musical career. At the Birchmere last summer, Willis introduced “What World Are You Living In?” a tune she wrote with the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, by explaining that the song appeared on Fading Fast, an EP that was released only in Texas. Before letting loose the tune’s first few chords, Willis cracked, “My career is just one brilliant marketing strategy after another.”
For most of the six years since her last full-length release, Willis’ strategy has been languishing at the what’s-next stage, providing her with ample time to come up with 13 songs that effectively put her days as a would-be pinup to rest. It’s no surprise that Willis comes off like an old-school country diva on the just-released What I Deserve; if she learned anything in Nashville, it was how to make good use of other people’s songs. Even as a kid, Willis had the ability to render with her pipes what she couldn’t with a pen. On the new record, her voice is so big it’s almost ungainly, somehow loopy without ever missing a pitch, and when it blows through a song you already know (Nick Drake’s “Time Has Told Me,” for example, or the Replacements’ “They’re Blind”), it’s not like hearing a familiar voice coming through a stranger’s mouth.
“I have to feel like I would bring something different to [a song],” she says. “Whether it’s just that it’s a man’s song and a woman is singing it, or it’s a song from a whole different area of music than [what] people associate me with, it always starts with a real personal connection to it.”
What I Deserve also benefits from the kind of sturdy vision Willis’ past releases lacked, undoubtedly a product of her years spent in introspective limbo. The tunes aren’t so much upbeat or downbeat as they are ambiguously blue, lurking at the intersection of country, folk, rock, and blues where Texas songwriters have been setting up shop since the late ’60s. And because Willis couldn’t always find material to jibe with her feelings, she was forced to cultivate new sources.
“When I was younger, I felt like I had enough to deal with just trying to sing and learn how to play guitar,” she explains, adding that she got shy about writing after the first song she ever penned ended up on her first album. “But as I got older, as I got involved more and more, I wanted to write more. I couldn’t find the songs I wanted to record. There wasn’t anything saying what I wanted to say. So I started to write my own.”
Almost half of What I Deserve’s songs come from the singer herself, including the title track, cowritten with Louris. Like a lot of Willis’ tunes, the song is subdued and strummy, a platform for her to swoon; it almost sounds like an answer to Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses,” except Willis is asking for more than a comfortable bed and time to think. Getting what you deserve “doesn’t mean you don’t still long for and wish for things to be better,” she says. “I think that’s a lot of what I’ve been feeling over the last five or six years. There’s a bridge in that song that says, ‘I’ve done the best I can, but what I’ve done is not who I am.’ It’s like, God, you know, I wish you could get a second chance.”CP