Laughing It Up with Kelly Willis
Well Travelled and lovely still a quarter-century down the road
By William Harries Graham,
1:45PM, Fri. Jan. 29, 2016
In 1990, MCA Records released the debut of a little known country singer named Kelly Willis, who’d bounced from Oklahoma to North Carolina and D.C. before graduating high school and moving to Austin with a band. Well Travelled Love charted and thus began a lauded career for the singer, who reunited the LP’s band Radio Ranch for a pair of shows this weekend.
Willis, who performs Saturday at the Continental Club and Sunday at Strange Brew, started building her national profile as one of the original group of locals signed out of the earliest days of South by Southwest. Nanci Griffith, already an MCA act, sang Willis’ praises. Suddenly, she found herself in the studio with Radio Ranch: Mike Hardwick on steel guitar, Brad Fordham handling bass, guitarist David Murray, and ex-husband Mas Palermo behind the drum kit.
Celebrating the album’s silver anniversary, Willis doesn’t look a day older. Her life outlook is equally youthful. As the daughter of a 5-star general ....
“He made that impression on people,” she laughs. “He was a Colonel. All say he would have made general if he and mom had not divorced. When he took on becoming ‘Mr. Mom’ after she moved away, it shut down that option.
“I grew up never talking back to authority and being very proud of my dad. And also eager to make my own life.”
Willis grew up an Army brat, spending her grade school years at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, then did a high school stint in Washington, D.C.
“I was exposed to music early and always thought of it as an ‘option,’” she says. “My mom sang in musical theater.”
In high school, she fell hard for the Beatles, Buddy Holly, and school mate Mas Palermo. He had a band in D.C.’s thriving rockabilly scene.
“He introduced me to a world of music that sent me on my path,” smiles Willis.
Her first gig was in 12th grade at a backyard party that led to opening spots around the D.C. area at the Roxy, 9:30 Club, and the Twist & Shout.
“I knew from the first gig,” affirms the singer. “The feedback was always positive enough to push us forward. As a shy wallflower type I thought, ‘Grab this and don’t let go.’”
Fast forward to 2016 to find Willis married to Bruce Robison and sharing four children. Their oldest is 15, the twins are 12, and the youngest clocks in at 10. She tires just counting all that off.
“Being a mother is exhausting and has slowed down my creative process,” she admits. “I’d have to say I center my whole life around my kids and husband. I’m inspired by their friendship and love.”
Locals say that one of the biggest ways Willis has changed since her Well Travelled Love days is how playful she’s become. Her sense of humor shouldn’t be underestimated. Chalk part of that up to all the permutations of Willis and Robison.
“Playing with Bruce has been a trip. For someone who irritates me so much, performing with him has been without a doubt the best music I’ve ever made,” she laughs again. “I’m joking of course, but it’s a challenge to work with the person who’s supposed to be your respite from the people you work with!
“But I’ve felt so comfortable and confident standing next to him. It has completely changed my live shows. I have more fun now and have learned a lot about the art of delivering a show.”
When asked if she knows Wikipedia lists Robison as he ex-husband, she gamely fire back, “We’re trying to go solo before that Wiki entry becomes true!”
Willis’ musical styles have changed as she’s changed, though only by a matter of degrees. She once called her style country but now terms it “Americana Country.”
“Wait, that sounds horrible,” she cries. “Switch it back it ‘country.’”
Looking back at Radio Ranch, Willis connects it to the here and now.
“I think my music today sounds related to Well Travelled Love,” she offers. “Like having a sister: We look the same around the eyes.
“It’s been enlightening, healing, and ridiculously fun playing with the guys again. They’re family. I didn’t realize how much I missed them. They’re really wickedly funny, too.
“I’ve been laughing a lot.”
What surprises her most about how much the industry has changed since she started is that “music is free and that live music or performing is king!” One of Willis’ fondest memories of being onstage is singing a duet with the late, great Buck Owens at the Continental Club.
“Another is the first time I sang an a capella song for an encore at a show at the Cactus Cafe. I sang Linda Thompson’s ’My Dreams Have Withered and Died.’ I was so surprised by the standing ovation. I wanted to cry.”