DIARY - 30 MARCH 2004 - KELLY WILLIS
hear my father and his Oklahoma drawl/ I hear my grandmother, oh I can
hear them all/ and when you talk like that, I know where I'm from/ with
hopes like that I know where I'm from." - Talk Like That - Kelly
born Kelly Willis soared to nirvana as she swapped footlights for
the spotlight when at the West Texas wedding of Dixie Chick Emily
Irwin and Charlie Robison.
Ms Willis, singing spouse of Charlie's brother Bruce, performed Chuck
E's In Love and Dixie Chicks Martie Seidel and Natalie Maines sang
their new tune Cowboy, Take Me Away in a 150 year old fort at Cibolo
Creek near the tiny towns of Marfa and Alpine.
It was a sequel to the previous Robison nuptials when the sweet refrain
of Simon & Garfunkel hit Mrs Robinson farewelled Kelly and Bruce
as they kissed and departed the ceremony.
And also a salient signpost to the luck change for a singer who carried
a torch for progressive country a decade ago when signed to MCA -
home of Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith.
got pulled up for speeding en route but we got out of it when he said
we're here for a wedding, - Emily & Charlie," Kelly told Nu Country
in a call from her adoptive home town of Austin, Texas.
Equally importantly it was a welcome break in Kelly's rigorous touring
and promo schedule prompted by the chart topping success of her fifth
album What I Deserve on Rykodisc.
Kelly bounced Earle from Americana chart tops when her comeback album
broke a six-year drought after she walked the MCA plank in 1993 with three
widely lauded discs.
It was a horrific hiatus for the singer who was signed by the Nashville
label boss Tony Brown - former Presley and Hot Band pianist - as the new
"I was his pet project for those three albums," the Oklahoma
oriole says, "I think he had high hopes of me crossing the bridge
between the Lyle-Nanci audience the mainstream country. That was too hefty
a request for me. I was 20 when he signed me. I was just trying to figure
out what I wanted to do."
It was a culture shock for Kelly, born in Lawton, Oklahoma, but raised
in Virginia after her parents - an Army Colonel and a singing actress
- split when she was nine.
AND RADIO RANCH
Kelly fronted The Fireballs at 16 and headed to Austin at 19 where Radio
Ranch, helmed by her first husband Mas Palermo, was her springboard.
It was there she attracted the attention of Brown who allowed her to use
Radio Ranch and top studio musos on her debut disc Well Travelled Love.
Although her debut, second disc Bang Bang Bang and self titled
third album all sold about 60,000 she was $1.5 million in hock to MCA
when she split.
Kelly signed an abortive A & M deal and demoed diverse originals under
the tutelage, ironically, of Earle's fifth ex-wife Theresa Ensenat - the
A & R person who signed Guns N Roses.
"She was wonderful, she let me get in the studio every time I wrote
a song to work it up," says Kelly, "she was a very important
part of the record. She got me together with Gary Louris who I wrote many
songs with. She got me together with others but it wasn't as cool as what
happened with me and Gary. It was natural and easy."
Although the writing partnership produced Take Me Down and the
Rykodisc album title track What I Deserve all that survived from
the A & M sessions was an EP, Fading Fast, which only scored Texas
release by Dallas indie label Crystal Clear.
The single was recut for What I Deserve which fermented for 18
months before rebirth in Austin after a stormy San Francisco sidetrack.
"It was frustrating as I was with A & M for 2 years," Kelly
revealed, "I never did a full album. I did a lot of demos. I'm glad
it turned out the way it did because I could have given them a record
and got dropped. It's been a frustrating five years but I found myself
creatively and musically in those 5 years. I had to do it that way, it
never would have happened any other way."
Ms Willis appeared on 13 different recording projects - compilations and
movie soundtracks - to stoke her creative fires.
"During that down time any time I got asked to do something I would
do it," she revealed, "I needed to be working, a lot of that
stuff I didn't get paid for. I wanted to be in the studio, to be creative,
didn't want to sit still. It was good for me, my mental state, to be in
KELLY AND DALI LAMA
Ms Willis has gigged with acts diverse as Steven Seagal, the Dali Lama,
Beth Orton and the wide cast of Lilith Fair.
and I did a show for English speaking people in Nepal," Kelly
revealed, "Steven Seagal and the Dali Lama were there. Steven
got up with us and did some Dylan songs. He is a Lama. It was a good
photo opportunity and got publicity back home in Texas."
Her profile landed her a part as a protest singer Clarissa Flan in
1992 movie Bob Roberts and songs in Thelma & Louise, Boys and
"I kind of exaggerated how well I could play the guitar because
I just wanted to get the part so badly," Kelly confessed.
Willis with Bruce Robison
just played a folk singer. Luckily I didn't have to act at all. I didn't
have to audition."
Kelly and Dwight Yoakam also landed roles in CBS TV series, PS, I Love
"Dwight and I we were the murder suspects, we were country singers,"
Kelly added, "my role shrunk. I was called in to replace Lorrie Morgan
who had a huge role. They called me in two days before they were going
to shoot. The saving grace was they got me to sing Take Me - the George
and Tammy duet - with Dwight."
But it's her own roots she celebrates three decades later in the stone
country tune, Talk Like That.
AND RICKY SKAGGS
the fastest song I've ever written," Kelly says, "I was at a
press conference with Ricky Skaggs for a country festival in Cancun, Mexico.
No-one was asking me questions but the sound of his voice and words he
chose to use made me remember my family. I was an Army brat, we moved
round a lot. My parents divorced when I was 9. I felt disconnected my
whole life but I instantly connected. I went straight to my hotel and
wrote that song in less than two hours."
Although Kelly jokes about doing a song penned by her singing spouses
she's not keen to write with Bruce.
"One of my lines on stage is usually that my husband and ex-husband
wrote this song together so that qualifies me to be a country singer,"
says Ms Willis, "it's a little strange but we're all friends."
She cut Bruce's tunes Wrapped and Not Forgotten You for
this album but won't cross the marital line.
"I try really hard to keep separate when it comes to that portion
of making music," Kelly says, "it's easier to get upset with
somebody you're not that close to. If you are writing with a stranger
he or she won't take it personally. With your husband you might take it
personally if he doesn't like some thing you come up with."
Ms Willis also wrote two of the new tunes with John Leventhal - producer
and husband of Rodney Crowell's ex wife Rosanne Cash - in his New York
to Adelaide born singer Paul Kelly for Cradle Of Love - a fertile
foil for the angst of some of her own songs - and an Aussie mike.
She also cut the Kelly tunes Hidden Things on Bang Bang Bang
and Smoke on Easy.
"Paul's one of my favourite writers," says Ms Willis, "he
was the only writer I asked my publisher to send me songs by when I went
to record. I listened to a lot of his songs. This had a nice bluegrass
feel on the chorus. It felt real earthy. I loved the sentiment of the
song. That's why I chose it."
And the Australian Rode Classic tube microphone?
"It sounded a little warmer and live," she says.
But the singer didn't write with Lyle Lovett although an Austin meeting
with Lyle inspired the Dale Watson tune Caught.
CAUGHT WITH LYLE LOVETT
never wrote with Lyle but he produced some demos for me that got
me my A & M record deal," she says, "I needed to go
and make demos. I didn't have any money. I tried to get Pete Anderson
to help me but he turned me down. I was telling Lyle about it and
he said 'I'll do it.' I said really, so we went in and recorded
3 songs that he produced."
Ironically, Ms Willis duetted with Watson on the old Moe Bandy hit
It's A Cheating Situation on the concept album Wandering
Eyes - Songs Of Forbidden Love on Asleep At The Wheel
drummer Dave Sanger's Lazy Son Of A Bitch Records.
put the whole project together with people from different bands
so it wouldn't be billed as one artist," says Kelly who cut
Me And Mrs Jones.
was really hard for me because that was a soul song. I felt like this
white girl trying to sing soul music, it wasn't real natural for me. I'll
probably never sing that song live but I got a real kick out of it. It
seemed to me like the last thing you'd expect to hear me singing."
Well, except for Caught.
"I consider myself a country artist," says Kelly, "I just
think country is a real diverse format. There's a lot of different stuff
that's country but I also think that I'll have a pretty hard time getting
played on country radio again. I know there are restrictions in what's
played on the radio. I love country music and I'm proud to be considered
part of it. What can I do if can't get played on radio?"
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