Kelly Willis

MUSIC CITY WANTED TO MAKE A STAR OF Kelly Willis but she didn’t want to be a Music City kind of star. It’s true, she tried for a while. She released three albums on MCA Nashville in the early ‘90s that – on the surface, anyway – should have at least earned her a foothold on the country charts.

She certainly had the voice and the look of a surefire country singing sensation.

But that wasn’t enough for Willis or her record label. “I’m grateful that I got a shot like I did,” she said. “But it became obvious over the years that something just wasn’t clicking [with the label]. We weren’t out to achieve the same things. I felt like I was achieving nothing. It felt really empty to me – like I was letting myself down.”

Trouble was, Willis was at the vanguard of what would become the Insurgent Country movement. She just couldn’t conform to Nashville’s expectations. The way she saw it, she was a singer fronting a band and the harder she was pushed to become something else, the more ambivalent she became.

“I was 20 years old and I didn’t know what I wanted. It was my second band and we were a band. I was used to contributing one-fifth to the creative ideas and direction.”

By the time Willis made her second record, MCA decided the band had to go and she found herself even further adrift. “It was like getting thrown into the fire. I didn’t even know how to communicate what I thought I should do. I wanted to take a lot more time to figure that out.”

The music business is not known for its patience so it was no surprise that MCA dropped her in 1994. She was picked up by A&M Records two years later but her supportive A&R rep was let go – and consequently, so was Willis – before she could release another full-length LP.

There was no way the tenacious singer was going to quit music but she did quit Nashville. Willis returned to her roots, playing clubs in and around Austin. She had never really left that fertile scene and being back in the center of it reinforced her reasons for not compromising her artistic vision.

“In Austin, so much respect is paid to people trying to do music with integrity – to people trying to do something that is ambitious in an artistic way,” she said. “That has been a goal of mine. That has been the only goal I’ve needed. I didn’t need to make a lot of money or be really famous or anything like that. That’s all so empty. And where I live, it’s not very valued.”

Playing at The Cactus Cafe, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, The Mucky Duck and the like kept Willis in front of audiences. More importantly, the audiences were interested in her as a musician, not as a commodity. It also provided her a nurturing, familiar environment, which was a treasured thing for a singer who, by her own account, is not a real comfortable performer.

“I’ve always been a club musician. That’s my world, playing live. I feel very fortunate that I never had to get a day job. I just played clubs and even though there weren’t that many people hearing or seeing me, it kept me around.”

Kelly Willis

There were times when Willis wished she could have taken a break. She said it would have been nice to take a step back and find a fresh approach to the music. “I would have enjoyed not having to work as hard as I did, but in retrospect, I really am proud of myself for how I dealt with the situation. It was rough but I think I handled it well.”

It was a learn-as-you-go process. With no record company support and no other substantial revenue streams, Willis became her own road manager and crew. “I learned how everything works, inside and out. I’ve done everyone else’s job and I value their skills more now than I used to. I appreciate the fact that the road manager has to answer a question every two seconds. I appreciate that everyone’s job is hard and I think that’s helped me prepare for the road ahead,” she said.

Six years passed between Willis’ third and fourth albums but she never stopped playing. By the time she signed with Rykodisc in 1998, she was much more sure of herself and of the record she wanted to make. The release of What I Deserve has brought her new acclaim, respect and healthy record sales. It’s a strange and wonderful experience for an artist who worked so hard to make music on her own terms.

“My booking agent, Davis McLarty, he and I laugh about it because I have a whole team of people now. Davis has done so many different jobs for me; he helped out a lot. We remember when it used to be so lonely. Things are really busy and good right now but I don’t care if next month it’s just me and Davis again.”

Right now, Willis is adjusting to the attention, her tour schedule and having her name mentioned alongside other difficult-to-market-but-brilliant artists like Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris. “It’s a little strange,” she said. “But it feels good. It really does, I have to say. I feel embraced and that’s a great feeling when you’ve been pushed away for a long time.”