STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE: Austin singer-songwriter wows critics and record company executives, lands major-label deal, fails to live up to unreasonably high expectations, slinks back to Austin with tail between legs, and spends rest of life lamenting missed opportunity.
Except for the last part, that’s the Kelly Willis story in a nutshell. A decade ago—has it been that long?—she was country music’s Next Big Thing, an ingenue barely out of her teens with all the makings of a star. She had a vibrant and seductive voice, striking good looks that prompted People magazine to name her one of the fifty most beautiful people in the world, great press (one writer called her “an angel with hell-scorched wings”), and the encouragement of the most powerful man on Music Row, MCA Nashville president Tony Brown, who launched the careers of Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. And yet, while no one disputed that she was a natural talent brimming with potential, things never quite worked out. Maybe it was her fear of success; maybe it was her inability or unwillingness to master the art of the schmooze. Whatever the case, five years and three albums later—and more than $1.5 million in debt to MCA—she was sent packing. She managed to record only one more release, a halfhearted record for A&M appropriately titled Fading Fast, before returning to Austin with a reputation as yet another slacker who couldn’t hack it.
But unlike a lot of other prodigies who pull up short, Willis refused to quit, which is why I found