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 myself sitting across from her one day in December in the cozy comfort of the Boar’s Nest, a funky little clubhouse that sits behind her neat white frame house in north-central Austin. Advance copies of What I Deserve—her first full-blown album since 1993—had just been mailed, and the buzz machine was revving up all over again. So what if, at thirty, she’s not exactly a fresh face anymore? So what if she’s now recording for Rykodisc, a small Massachusetts-based label best known for its reissues and its roster of alternative artists? Could it be that Kelly Willis is the Next Big Thing all over again? And what really happened the first time around?
“I was extremely uncomfortable with what I was going through in Nashville,” Willis told me. “Always. It never felt right. Now everything feels right, even if I’m not on MCA with all that money behind me. I’m a priority for Rykodisc. They seem to be a record company with a soul. They seem to be driven by music. And that’s really exciting to me. I have no idea how it’s going to work, but this time it doesn’t feel sleazy.”
Dressed in a simple brown chenille sweater and blue jeans, her straight blond hair ever so slightly disheveled, with practically no makeup covering her porcelain skin, Willis looked more beautiful than ever. She was calmer too, and why not? Nary a publicist, a manager, or an A&R person was in sight—a marked contrast to Nashville, where an entourage follows you everywhere. This time, in this place, it was her show. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “This is my album. I wrote half the songs. I was very involved with the production and the arrangements. It’s all the pain and agony and sweat, everything that’s gone on in the last five years. I have ideas. I feel inspired and energetic.”
As Willis explained it, all that other stuff was a case of too much too soon. When the Lawton, Oklahoma, native hit Austin in 1987 after a year of community college, she was already fronting her own band: Kelly and the Fireballs, a rockabilly outfit that relocated to Texas because that’s where their kind of music could pull a crowd and grow artistically. Fireballs drummer Mas Palermo, her boyfriend at the time (and later her husband), had to persuade her to make the move, but once there, she reveled in it. “Austin was the Tailgators, Evan Johns, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, all that,” she recalled. A year later she had a high-powered manager, a record deal, and a slot in the fast lane, as well as a severe case of stage fright that was often misinterpreted as arrogance or laziness. “When I started singing, it was fun, but it was terrifying too,” she said. “I was so scared. I would just shake. On breaks I would just stand there.”
Once she was in Nashville, her benefactors tried to help her overcome her shyness. “They sent me to talk to a woman who taught me how to present myself. They wanted me to be able to control an interview—like if they were talking about something I didn’t want them to talk about, how I could bring it back around to ‘single, tour, album.’ They wanted me to be some kind of entertainer, to walk into a room, light the place up, and make every single person in there feel special. I look back on it now and think, ‘Well, I probably would have been much more interesting to people if they could have seen the real weird me.’ I would go to these big country radio stations and they’d go, ‘Trisha Yearwood was just here, and she was so charming, and she said all these things, and we all laughed.’ They obviously wanted to talk to me, and I had no cute little anecdotes to make them go, ‘Can you believe Kelly Willis was here?’ It was really strange.”
Her immediate response was to draw back. She had agreed to play a small part in the searingly cynical political parody Bob Roberts—the movie’s star, writer, and director, Tim Robbins, had personally asked her to do it—then she tried to wriggle out of it (she ultimately went ahead with it anyway). When she appeared as a presenter on the Country Music Association awards show in 1993—orchestrated by MCA as an attempt to get her face-time on national TV—her body language sent a message to the audience that she’d rather be anywhere else. Viewed in that context, getting dropped by MCA was the best thing that could have ever happened to her. Between her nervousness and her reluctance to step up to the line whenever she was supposed to, she just wasn’t ready, no matter how hard the people behind her pushed. Willis is the sort of recording artist who is never going to be comfortable in that environment.
Which, it turns out, is just fine. The five-year break she took to sort out her professional and personal lives (she married husband number two, Austin singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, in 1996), probably helped her career more than hurt it, because while she was away, the alternative country craze hit with a wallop—and if ever there was someone made to fit into that landscape, it’s Kelly Willis. Listening to What I Deserve, you can’t help but think she’s a female Wilco, the missing member of Uncle Tupelo, the sixth Jayhawk, and the next Lucinda Williams all rolled into one. It’s a solid effort on which her singing sparkles and the backing musicians—who include Robison, former Green on Red stalwart Chuck Prophet, and fiddler Amy Farris—do what they’re supposed to do: bring out the best in her. Just as important, she has augmented her own compositions with offbeat covers of songs by eclectic, definitely uncountry composers like Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, the late Nick Drake, Memphis legend Dan Penn, and Damon Bramblett, the talented young songwriter from the Texas town of Bangs, whose “Heavenbound” may be the most solid tune on the whole record. The missing ingredient is a great song of her own. She just misses with both “Take Me Down” and “What I Deserve,” which were co-written by Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. But there’s no reason to fret. Sometimes that elusive ability to impart wisdom and meaning through lyrics comes only with age, wisdom, and maturity, and there’s plenty of tread left on her tires.
On the business side of things, the Nashville experience seems to have helped her. She’s got enough sales savvy to set her sights on the same 60,000-copy plateau that her first two MCA efforts reached. Back then that number was considered a failure, given the label’s substantial investment in marketing and promotion, but this time, given Rykodisc’s considerably smaller budget (one tenth of what MCA spent), it will put a larger piece of the gross into her pocket. To help push product, there will be the obligatory tour of small clubs around the nation, which if nothing else will be an opportunity to work on her shyness. “It’s better,” she admitted. “There are moments when performing is the greatest thing ever and everybody up here onstage is so good and I’m so happy playing with them, and there are moments when I’m shaking. I don’t know why. It’s just really awkward.”
But whatever happens, it will be nothing like those days in Nashville—and that’s a blessing. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I still think people think I’m a Barbie doll. That’s not what I am and that’s not what I want to be, but I worry about it because I’m not cut out for a lot of this music business stuff. You have to have a thick skin. You can’t let your feelings get hurt, you know. For me, it’s all about redemption. I think it was great for me to live in Austin and make records in Nashville because it always reminded me that all that other stuff was garbage. The people here have integrity and make music for the sake of making music, whether or not they know how to package it and make it sell. Austin kept me alive for the past five years. It’s still a very encouraging environment for musicians, even as much as it’s changing. It’s a place where second chances—third and fourth chances, for that matter—are all part of making music for a living.
“You know, Jerry Jeff Walker has figured out his career for himself. He gets to make music that he really likes, and he makes money. He’s got it figured out, and I don’t. I want it to all fall into place like that. Not necessarily the cover of Rolling Stone and radio success—just a career that I feel rewarded by.” That, you might say, is what she deserves.