Old-Style Country, Rockabilly, Folk, Americana: Kelly Willis Still Nails It All (INTERVIEW)

Singer-songwriters Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison don’t normally perform their Holiday Shindig outside of Austin, Texas. But this year they drove the seven-plus hours over to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to entertain a slew of fans that enjoyed not only a few Christmas carols but some darn good songs by the singers themselves. “This is actually our twentieth year,” Willis explained with a hint of surprise in her voice at the realization they had been doing the Holiday Shindig for that long. “When we first started it we didn’t even do any holiday songs. We were just getting together during the holidays with Bruce’s brother because we never saw each other. We never really intended to have a holiday show. But one year just followed the next and it just kept happening and we just can’t really believe we can look back now and see that it’s been twenty years.”

Willis, who started off in rockabilly before moving to Austin and getting signed by a major label in 1989, was a breath of fresh air when she came on the scene. Her first three albums were received well, she was nominated for an ACM Award for Top New Female Vocalist in 1993 and she appeared alongside Tim Robbins in a minor role dueting with the star in his directorial debut, Bob Roberts. But despite all that, the label decided it was not enough and they released her from her contract. In 1999, Willis would come back even stronger and better on an album titled What I Deserve that put her back on the charts. With a more pure, more mature sound, this is the Kelly Willis that fans loved. 

Although labeled country, Willis swings between several genres quite easily: old-style country, rockabilly, folk, Americana. Her voice can be sassy one minute and filled with pain and heartache the next. Teaming up with husband Robison brought out a new spunk and together they have recorded four albums, most recently this year’s Beautiful Lie. For those unfamiliar with Robison, he is a songwriter’s paradise, a plethora of musical words, constantly whipping out songs that run up the charts for other artists – George Strait’s #2 “Wrapped,” Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s #1 “Angry All The Time,” and the Dixie Chicks’ #1 “Travelin’ Soldier.” 

Bringing their exceptional five-piece band along with them to their recent show at the Manship Theatre in Louisiana’s capital, it was a fun night featuring twenty songs from their careers. Willis sang a lovely “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” as family videos of their children played on a screen behind her; Robison introduced “Wrapped” by explaining how, “It started out as a sad song but now is the happiest song I ever wrote,” while “Travelin’ Soldier” was his “Fastest descending song in the charts” after Dixie Chick Natalie Maines’ spiel against then President George Bush; “Honky Tonk Ramblin’ Man” was a foot-stomping good time; “Okie Christmas,” about Robison’s first time visiting Willis’ family during the holidays, was a hoot; and the audience-requested “What I Deserve” during the encore was soulfully beautiful, as was Willis’ 2018 “Back Being Blue.”

[On a side note, Clay Parker and Jodi James opened this show with a set that was pretty much breathtaking. If you haven’t seen them, you’re missing a truly gifted pair of singer-songwriters]

A few days before their show, the mother of four called in to talk with me about being a young artist figuring out who she wanted to be, not writing songs with her husband, her admiration of Lucinda Williams and projecting a confident image while being a naturally shy person.

Kelly, you and Bruce are so perfect harmonically but you rarely write together. Why is that?

We were solo artists when we met and we never really intended to be a duo. So being married to each other, I think that we’ve tried to keep some of that stuff at bay because, you know, show business can sort of interfere with your life and it’s just tricky. We enjoyed singing together and I think that we never even really tried to write together until we’d been together a little bit. But it just felt like creating a scenario where we might fight (laughs). It felt like, we’ve got enough going on, leave some of the possible conflict out of it. 

So I don’t know why that’s never been an area where we just wanted to co-create together. We have co-written a couple of songs but what we’ll do is it’ll be a song Bruce wrote and then I finished. Most times that’s the way it’s been but other than that, we have a really wonderful time singing together, playing together, we like being in the studio and creating music together; so I don’t know, it feels like we’re tempting fate (laughs).

When you started singing and joining a band and becoming a performer when you were this young kid, who did you want to be and did you achieve that goal of being the artist you envisioned yourself as?

That’s a good question. I fell in love with rockabilly music and I really worshiped that style of music and those artists from the fifties. When I was a teenager there were a lot of bands that were very successful, maybe on a regional level or they were nation-wide but not superstars. But those were the people whose lives I really looked up to and admired and hoped that I might be able to have something like that. So it was funny, I kind of skipped over that. I moved to Austin and I was making music here and working on music here when I was signed to my Nashville deal and I was pretty naïve about how the whole thing worked, about how there was a Nashville label or a New York label or an LA label; it was stuff I hadn’t really thought about. But I did suddenly have a national recording contract and it seemed to me that since then I’ve gone backwards into a place I actually really always dreamed of being, where I found a creative place to make music and play in venues and for people that are like-minded. So eventually I do think that I achieved that dream and I am grateful for it every day.

You attended university for one semester. What degree were you going to pursue?

At the time, I was really just trying to make my dad happy by going to school while I was pursuing music. At the time I was taking those courses that would fit in any major but I had put down Education, which makes me laugh at this point cause there’s no way I could stand up in front of a classroom and teach anybody anything. I don’t know why I put that (laughs). But my dad was in the Army and my mom was a nurse and for many years I always thought that I would either go in the Army or become a nurse (laughs). I’ve got very little imagination, I guess, beyond being a musician.

I’ve seen in some old interviews people talking about this photo of you in a leather jacket so I went and looked up this photo. You look spunky and fearsome and confident. Is that a true depiction or false advertising?

(laughs) Well, you know, it’s a little of both but mostly I was incredibly shy. I had like serious social phobia as a young person so I wanted so much to be the person I was trying to project. But when I’d get into any scenario where I’d have to stand up and deliver, I was always just trembling in my boots. But over time I have sort of overcome a lot of those issues. I’ve done everything wrong you could possibly do wrong – mistakes on stage and survived – to where I’m not really afraid of very much anymore.

You’ve talked about Lucinda Williams before. What attracted you to her since you were so shy and she’s like the complete opposite?

Well, I know that she actually used to suffer from stage fright back in the day too. But she had put out this record when I was here in Austin and I think I had just maybe gotten signed to my first deal, my first record was about to come out, and she had a record called “Big Red Sun” and I was just so moved by her songwriting and the uniqueness of it. At the time, it just sounded like nothing I’d heard before and I felt really liberated by that. I felt like I could write my own version, my own quirky songs that didn’t have to sound like anybody else’s or fit in anywhere and that that kind of art was possible. So I felt emboldened to try it and try to write my own material. There’s still never been as good a songwriter or as prolific a songwriter as her but I ventured into it because I was so inspired by her.

You started singing when you were really, really young. Were you interested in writing songs at the time as well?

I was really not interested in writing songs. I was doing a lot of old songs that had already been written but I was also in a band where there were two guys in it that were both writing songs – my very first band, the Fireballs – and so that position was kind of covered. I also didn’t feel the need to write songs or felt like I even could. It was after I was in Nashville and we were starting the process of trying to nail down what we were going to record that I started feeling like maybe I need to write my own songs because the stuff I was being pitched I just didn’t feel it, it didn’t make sense for me to be doing those songs. I know there were great songs out there but they weren’t being pitched to me (laughs). So it was hard to find the ones I did like and I thought, well, I guess I could try writing and see if I find something that way. And that was my first foray into songwriting.

Do you consider yourself a country artist or are you more broad-minded of the music you do?

Well, it’s always been hard to define and I used to always just blanketly call it country. But it’s tricky to come up with some little sliver of country music that perfectly defines you and I just kind of wanted to go ahead and embrace it all. There is so much under that umbrella of what is country. But it’s probably a little more rootsy, roots rock, than in other kinds of country music. I think for a while I used to call it country folk but then folk sounds different to everybody too. It’s like a no-win scenario, how to describe music in general. Any record that I put out or that my husband and I put out might have one really classic standard, when you think of country music, on there and a lot of stuff that is kind of in the same vein as country music. These days you might have a completely different idea of what’s country than I do. You might be thinking about some big hit artist that’s on the radio or something and we don’t sound anything like that (laughs). 

I first learned of you when I saw Bob Roberts. How did that part come to you?

You know, I’m not really sure how he found out about me but they did approach me and asked if I would be interested in doing the part. I think they had tried to get some actress to do it and I don’t know if they weren’t able to find the right person. But they sent me the script and I remember I read the script and reading it I was really worried. I wasn’t sure how it was going to come across onscreen. I thought people might take it literally and think that we really were like those people or that we approved of the way those people were (laughs). I was really worried about that so I almost didn’t do it. I was telling my manager, “No, tell them I can’t do it.” But she talked me into it. She thought they were going to get it right and she was right. 

I remember I had exaggerated my ability to play guitar. At the time I really was not that great of a guitar player and they needed me to be able to play, because the backing tracks were pre-recorded but our vocals and our individual guitars were recorded live so that it would look real. So yeah, I just lucked into it. It was a really special, wonderful experience and I’m so grateful that I got to do it and work with these people. It’s one of those crazy stories that I can’t even believe happened to me. 

But Tim was definitely incredibly busy, cause he’s starring in it and directing it. We did spend a little time together but his brother was in charge of the music so his brother would sit down and we’d hash through the songs together. It was really interesting. Jack Black was in it and at the time he wasn’t Jack Black. He was one of those rabid kids that’s like the big fans of his that are kind of stalking him almost. I met him and it was pretty cool.

So who was the first real rock star you ever met?

I met Carl Perkins. He played some shows in the DC area when I was a teenager and I was in my first rockabilly band and we got to open a show for him. He was the sweetest man ever. He was so kind and so generous with his time. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about or anything but it was very cool. He really lived up to his legendary status (laughs).

What was the first song you remember obsessing over as a kid?

When I was little, like in first grade or something, we had a 45 of that song “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & The Comets and I couldn’t get enough of it. I was mesmerized by it.

What was the most unique thing that inspired you to write a song?

I’m afraid all my songs are probably about heartbreak (laughs). But you know, one of the very first songs I wrote, it’s on my third record, Kelly Willis, the self-titled one, and it’s called “World Without You.” I actually wrote it about my mother and it sounds like a standard heartbreak song but it was a different kind of heartbreak. It was about the heartbreak of my parent’s divorce and my mother moved away. That was my first experience with having my heart broken.

When a song starts coming to you, what do you hear first – the words or a melody?

It’s a little combination of both but I’ll usually have either like a little turn of a phrase with a melody. Then I will write the whole melody and then I’ll go back and I’ll flush out the idea of whatever that one little lyric or turn of the phrase was that got the whole thing started. I’ll expand the lyrics and figure them out after I’ve got the structure of the song. Typically, but there’s always an exception.

When you and Bruce do a record together and you’re covering other songs, when you sit down to pick them out is there a method to that process?

We will just kind of turn the song upside down. We’ll each take a turn singing the lead and the other one the harmony and then we’ll switch the key up and see what happens. Eventually, either the song won’t ever find a sweet spot and we’ll just be sad and have to let it go or it’ll suddenly start to really hum and feel special. And that’s how we’ll know if we want to record it.

On Beautiful Lie, your rendition of “Lost My Best” is gorgeous. Tell us more about that song and why you chose it.

David Ball wrote that and he was a member of a band called Uncle Walt’s Band that was from South Carolina but had moved to Austin in the seventies and were really beloved here in Austin for a long time. The fiddle player in that band was a guy named Champ Hood and Champ played with me for many years before he passed away several years back. His son Warren also plays the fiddle and has played with Bruce and I over the years and Warren is always passing us little secret tapes of their material, unreleased stuff, and we’re just huge fans of them. They just have this great vibe about them, this bizarre mix of country and blues, jazz almost, and that song felt, to me, very much like the stuff I used to do when I first started out. It really felt Everly Brothers-esque or some kind of fifties standard type of a song and just a beautiful melody, beautiful story and one of those songs you just feel lucky you get to sing.

Are you looking to do some new music or stay on the road for a while?

We’re just performing right now. Bruce is always busy. He is producing other people all the time and he’s got a project he does called The Next Waltz so he is always creating. But I like to have a certain amount of down time just to be able to observe the world and have something to create about that. I can’t just keep going and going. He’s got a different energy than I do. And I’m just a slow decision maker. I don’t worry about it either. I just figure when it’s ready to be made, it’ll be made. I don’t force music. It comes when it comes.

As an artist, are you content with who you are today?

You know, I am. I’m very content with who I am. I love my career, I love the life that I have created around that career and I guess what that is is that I get to make records whenever I want to and I get to perform and play around the world and around the country as much as I want to. I can kind of create my own schedule. I love that I get to stand up amongst these great musicians every night when I play and listen to them and make music with them. It’s the most fun, the luckiest thing in the world to get to do. I guess I’ve just grown in my confidence to do this thing that I think I was always so afraid that I wasn’t really qualified doing. I love it and I feel so lucky.

 

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