On some other plane out there in the great big multiverse, Kelly Willis could well be the biggest Nashville country music star of the last 35 years. But things panned out rather differently for her here on this Earth. The Oklahoma-born Army brat was barely into her early 20s and still cutting her teeth fronting a spunky rockabilly band in Austin when a “check-this-kid-out” tip from Texas songwriter Nanci Griffith landed her on the radar of producer Tony Brown, who promptly signed her to MCA Records. How exactly her auspicious fireball of a debut, 1990’s Well Travelled Love, and even a plumb spot on the soundtrack to the following year’s Thelma & Louise, somehow failed to burn Willis’ name and voice into the mainstream consciousness remains a bone of bumfuzzlement for many a fan and critic to this day, but suffice it to say — Willis was still in her early 20s when MCA dropped her just two albums later.
And that, perhaps goes the Kelly Willis story in yet another alternate universe, was that. But lucky again for all of us here in this reality, “our” Kelly Willis was just getting started. Liberated from the Nashville playbook and emboldened by a jolting shot of nothing-left-to-lose, she set about making her next record in Austin her way. The end result, 1999’s aptly-titled What I Deserve, changed everything. “A big part of making that record was me thinking, ‘I’ll probably never get to make another one after this, so if this has to be my swan song, I’m not going to compromise,’” she says today. “That was a really big sea change for me to take the reins like that, and it was incredibly satisfying and gratifying that it then found a home with [independent label] Ryko and did so well. It was a pivotal moment that fueled the rest of my career.”
A bracingly assertive showcase not just for Willis’ masterful control of her “enormous voice” (per noted “Consumer’s Guide” critic Robert Christgau) but also for her burgeoning songwriting chops (be it solo or collaborating with the likes of John Leventhal and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris), What I Deserve may not have made Kelly a household name on the order of Shania, Faith, or Reba, but it clinched her standing as a bona fide darling of the national (and international) alt-country scene. Writers from No Depression to Rolling Stone cheered her “comeback,” and fans in her adopted hometown voted it “Album of the Year” in the Austin Music Awards. A decade later would find her inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame.
The six albums Willis has made since What I Deserve have only burnished her reputation as Austin’s reigning queen of Americana. Three of those albums, including 2019’s Beautiful Lie, were duo records made with her now ex-husband, fellow singer-songwriter Bruce Robison — who also produced Willis’ last solo album, 2018’s “richly satisfying” (NPR) Back Being Blue. The couple (who in addition to recording and touring together for years also raised four children together) announced their separation in early 2022, marking both the end of an era and the beginning of yet another “big sea change” for Willis. Looking ahead to the next stage of her life and career, she admits that the whole business of “starting over” — especially musically — can be scary, but she’s starting to get the hang of it.
“I’m usually a few-and-far-between kind of person when it comes to writing, but I’ve been writing a lot,” she says with a laugh. “So I’m in the creative phase of figuring out a new album, which of course is going to be a ‘divorce record,’ because there’s no getting around those things. But I think there’s a lot of hopeful stuff in there, too, and there’s the potential there for it to be really good. So, I do feel like I’m going to be ok.”
Willis says she hopes to have that new record out sometime next year, along with another project she’s been teasing of late: A 25th (!) anniversary re-release of What I Deserve, expanded with bonus demo tracks and maybe even a vintage live show — along with the album’s first-ever pressing on vinyl. But in the mean time, she’s happy just to be playing shows again post pandemic shutdown, connecting with fans old and new both as a full-time “solo” artist again for the first time in years, and as one-third of her favorite new joyride — a not-just-a-song-swap trio with her sister soulmates Brennen Leigh and Melissa Carper.
“We started that a year ago, thinking we were just going to do a small run of shows together, but the shows went over so well that we just kept going,” she enthuses. “We’ve already played a few places outside of Texas, and this year we’re going all the way up to the North East together and then out West. And we’ve even talked about writing together. The whole thing has just been amazing and super fun. I’m loving it!”
And deservedly so