By Lance Martin
Special for The Kenneth Threadgill Concert Series
It may have been a decade since Kelly Willis last recorded a solo album, but she’s been anything but idle.
The Austin-based singer-songwriter has collaborated on two albums with her husband, acclaimed singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, played plenty of shows and reared four children. And with three of those kids now in high school, she has rediscovered her creative energy.
“I’m working the same amount, but now I’m off doing more creative stuff,” Willis said. “Before I just didn’t have that energy. We would do rehearsals and we would do gigs, but the creative part was really a struggle. Now I find myself having time, energy and inspiration that I didn’t have before. So that’s kind of exciting for me – I’ve missed that a lot.”
This month, Willis will travel to Nashville where she will record a new album with the help of Chuck Mead from BR549.
“I hope to have it out at the end of March,” she said. “I’m really excited.”
Willis said that while she goes into this month’s sessions with a goal, the resulting album may sound much differently when finished.
“You never know how it will pan out,” Willis said. “I want it to be kind of fun. I wrote a lot of songs that fall in this ‘60s-’70s soul country area. So we’ll see – you get in there and you come out and go, ‘Oh, it’s another folk-girl record,’ so you never know.”
Willis has long crossed the boundaries of country, rockabilly and other genres with songs that are often called New Traditional or Americana.
The daughter of a U.S. Army officer, Willis was born in Oklahoma and later lived in North Carolina and suburban Virginia, where she attended high school. While she was frequently exposed to singing by her mother who had sang in a quartet in the 1950s and did musicals, Willis found herself attracted to the music of Buddy Holly and Patsy Cline as she became a teenager.
Biographical movies on both Holly and Cline helped take Willis to an intersection of rockabilly and country that she described as “this bizarre little world where these two things met and I got really into that.”
She described bands like the emerging Rockpile as “exciting.”
“They were kinda rockabilly and kinda country,” Willis said. “I started discovering that stuff that was a little bit edgy and stuff you had to look for.”
She remembers her first concert was not rockabilly – it was U2 at the Washington, D.C., DAR Hall before they were a mega-band.
“They were just about to explode,” Willis said. “Lone Justice opened for them. I didn’t know who Lone Justice was at the time. Like a year later, I would become obsessed with them. It was kinda weird. I was like that was them – I could have seen her (referring to Lone Justice singer Maria McKee).”
The same Maria McKee that Willis lists without hesitation as first among her musical heroes.
It wasn’t long before Willis convinced her then-boyfriend to let her join his band. She remembers their first gig at a backyard party and a performance soon after as “life changing” experiences.
“It was exciting and exhilarating and so different from anything I’d ever done,” Willis said. “I couldn’t imagine not trying to do it again and trying to do it better.”
That second performance was during her high school’s talent show, though Kelly and the Fireballs as they’d eventually call themselves did not compete for a prize.
“Everyone in my band had already graduated the year before so we weren’t allowed to compete but they let us perform during the intermission,” she said. “That was too much fun and so exciting and the ball got rolling and there was no turning back.”
Willis moved to Austin after high school, considering herself “pure rockabilly.” The Lone Star State did its part to change that at least a little.
“Texas exposed me to a lot more of the country stuff I had never heard,” she said. “It really opened my eyes and my horizons. I started to fall in love with a lot of that stuff.”
By the end of the 1980s, Willis found herself signed to a major label and being heavily marketed with as much or more emphasis on her looks than on her music. She released three albums and an EP during the 1990s and had married Robison, himself a singer-songwriter who had a deal with Sony’s Lucky Dog label that produced a pair of albums in 1998 and 1999. Willis made guest appearances on those albums providing rich, old-school harmonies that the couple have peppered into their work over the years.
“What I Deserve” in 1999 charted higher than any of her major label work and included “Talk Like That,” a song Willis wrote herself that Robison lists among his favorite Willis tunes. Her next album, “Easy” would feature more Willis-written songs that would become some of her biggest crowd pleasers, including “If I Left You” and the title track.
Willis last recorded solo in 2007’s “Translated from Love” which showed a range of styles and musical influence, including the Iggy Pop/David Bowie tune “Success” and “Nobody Wants to Go to the Moon Anymore” from talented songwriter Damon Bramblett. The talented Bramblett also wrote the popular “Heavenbound” that appeared on Willis’ “What I Deserve” album.
She’s remained busy over the last decade splitting time between solo gigs and the shows and albums with Robison.
Yet, fans will welcome news of a new solo album and the opportunity to hear more Willis originals. When asked if writing songs is enjoyable or a chore, she replied, “A little of both.”
“Sometimes it can be so depressing to attempt and then not come up with something good,” she said. “I think all writers start to go, ‘Oh my God, I’m horrible’ or ‘I’ll never write a good song again.’ This time around I wrote one song that I felt really, really good about; it’s a song called ‘Bad Being Blue’ and it sort of became my anchor song.
“That works for me really well, when I get one song done, and I go, ‘OK, I know how to make a record around this.’ And then getting some people on board, like when Chuck said he’d love to make a record with me – this kind of confidence and excitement starts to flow and I wrote a lot of songs. So it’s funny how all that stuff makes a difference.”
Willis and Robison, who has written hits for George Strait, Tim McGraw and the Dixie Chicks, keep songwriting as one of the few parts of their careers they keep separate.
“We do kind of go about our business of creating separately, but we are cheerleaders for each other once we hear it,” she said. “I stay truer to my vision of what I want to do. I get it done and then I show it to people, and that includes Bruce. It keeps me more focused and I don’t want to get bogged down into whether he liked it. If I just work on it until I think it’s done, that works better for me.”
That’s not to say Willis and Robison don’t frequently collaborate. In addition to the three albums they’ve created (“Cheater’s Game,” “Our Year” and “Happy Holidays”), they perform together frequently and often do special shows or projects for charitable causes.
“We just made a recording for All ATX, Austin’s musician benefit,” Willis said. “We love to do little projects together. This was a cover of a Steely Dan song, ‘Dirty Work,’ and it was so much fun. We love to sing together.”
Willis describes her husband’s “constant energy flow” as an inspiration for her.
“He’s in his element when he’s got lots of things happening,” she said. “I have a respect for his ability to do that and his talents in the studio. He always makes me feel so appreciated for what I contribute, whether it’s just singing on it or whatever. I feel like we really appreciate and value each other’s strengths and balance.”
The couple will celebrate their 21st wedding anniversary later this this month not long after performing on Friday, Oct. 13, as part of the Bob Wills Fiddle Festival and Contest at Greenville’s Municipal Auditorium.
Willis said the couple will likely play songs from their two albums together, songs from their solo careers, including Bruce’s new album, and they might even work something up that relates to Bob Wills.
Having a full band is a luxury she doesn’t always have at every show, but she and Robison will have one in Greenville, including a fiddle player.
“We are bringing Warren Hood with us,” she said, referring to the classically trained Berklee College of Music graduate whose late father, Champ Hood, was a staple of the Austin music scene and who now is an Austin staple himself. “We’re so lucky to get to play with these people. I met Warren when he was a little kid and his dad was playing in my band. He was just a little kid in pajamas eating cereal out of a bowl while he was in the room. It’s crazy to know we have all that history together. There’s so many musicians in this small town.”
Willis said she and Robison have been lucky to play with great fiddle players over the years, “it’s one of the best things, looking over at them when they start (to play).” That list of fiddlers include the Hoods, Eleanor Whitmore, Eamon McLaughlin and the late Amy Farris.
“I really miss it when I don’t have it,” she said. “I love the fiddle and what it brings to the whole band. It’s such an emotional instrument. You really just feel it – whether it’s so happy or so sad. It’s similar to the steel guitar in country music – they can just evoke so much emotion.”
Willis, who creates the set list for her shows with Robison says “that’s where all my power lies” and relates how Robison has a go-with-the-flow approach that is the total opposite of her show preparation.
“Bruce is happy to not even have a setlist and just kind of think of what he might do next,” she said. “That’s an amazing talent that I can never do. I can never even remember another song that I do if it isn’t written down.”
Willis said fans can expect to have a good time at the Greenville show, where anything can happen as long as Robison is around.
“Bruce and I just go out there and try to have fun and laugh at each other,” she said. “People can get out there and two-step a little and have a good time.”
With the Fiddle Contest show presented by The Kenneth Threadgill Concert Series, Willis shares that she moved to Austin too late to meet Threadgill, but she does have a story related to the Peniel native’s namesake restaurant that involved the late Don Walser, known like Threadgill for his yodeling.
“In the ‘90s, we recorded the jingle together for Threadgill’s,” she said, breaking into a tune that sounds a lot like ‘She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain.’ It was like ‘Let’s all go down to Threadgill’s – yum, yum, yum!’ It was so ridiculous.”
The radio jingle may have seemed silly, but it literally put food on the table for a young struggling couple.
“They paid us with a little card that you could use to get free food for me and a friend,” Willis recalled. “So Bruce and I would go to the north Threadgill’s on a Monday and then to the other one on like a Thursday. We would really try to mix it up so they didn’t know how often we were eating there but we survived pretty much because I had that card.”
These days, it’s Kelly Willis’ fans who are hungry for more and with the upcoming show and new album in the works, they will soon have much to feast upon.
Tickets for the Bob Wills Fiddle Contest and Festival show featuring Johnny Bush, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis are on sale at www.showtimeatthegma.com.
Lance Martin is a former Greenville Herald-Banner staff writer and news editor who now lives and works in Waco.