Music Feature: Alt-Country Singer Kelly Willis — Blue Again

“I’m happy with where I am in my career. I know what I want to do and can do it. I just enjoy it.”

By Scott McLennan

In moving forward, Kelly Willis took a quick look backwards.

Two years ago, Willis wrote the song “Back Being Blue,” a gorgeous piece of country-soul heartbreak that set her off on making her first solo album since 2007.

Not that Willis, who hit the alternative-country scene in the early ’90s, has been idle. She and Bruce Robison, her husband and fellow country musician, worked together on a few well-received duo albums and tours all the while raising a family and making their home in Austin.

Austin is where Willis headed as a teen from her native Oklahoma in the late ’80s to pursue a career in music. And much of what she saw and absorbed back then provided the inspiration for Back Being Blue.

“I wrote songs that reflect the era that excited me about music,” Willis recalled during a recent interview with The Arts Fuse.

That time and place generated plenty to get excited about. Bands put their rocking stamp on the classic country, blues, and R&B sounds from the ’50s and ’60s.

It wasn’t long before Willis herself was contributing to the lore of the Austin sound. Established singer-songwriters such as Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett championed her career, and Willis made a string of critically praised albums for MCA Records. But like others framed as “alternative” country, she did not garner a huge audience.

In 1999, having parted ways with MCA and the commercial country scene in Nashville, Willis made What I Deserve. She stopped trying to find a happy middle ground between the music she wanted to make and the music that other people wanted her to make. That album forgoes catchy hooks and simply lets Willis’s voice cut through the rich musical fabric — bringing in a welcome infusion of restlessness and grit.

That template resurfaced on 2002’s Easy, 2007’s Translated from Love and is further perfected on the new Back Being Blue.

Willis and many of the musicians who worked with her on Back Being Blue will be performing Monday, June 4 at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge, MA.

The six tunes Willis wrote for the new album are more or less about love — or at least they are love-related songs. They range from the wistful “Freewheeling” to the rocking “Modern World” and the sarcasm-dripping “Only You.”

Listening to such biting lines as “Only you could break your word/Blame it on my ears/Swear I don’t know what I heard/While laughing at my tears,” leaves one wondering if Willis and Robison, who produced the album, are actually on the rocks. Willis laughs at that kind of speculation, when people read too much into her lyrics, suspecting that they are an accurate description of where she is at now in life.

“I go to old wounds that linger in my mind and create the story,” she explained. “It’s not necessarily my story, but I find something in me to initiate it. I leave out some details and let the listener fill in those parts of the song.”

Kelly Willis Photo: courtesy of the artist.

There’s also a palpable, hard-earned wisdom woven into these songs. The tough stance Willis evoked on the song “Little Honey,” which was featured in the 1991 film Thelma & Louise, has not softened. But now the singer knows how to better measure the full dimensions of her heartache.

Willis’s self-described “blue period” has its upbeat moments as well. Her raucous take on the 1969 Skeeter Davis single “I’m a Lover (Not a Fighter)” is a pure jolt of fun that Willis, wisely, didn’t update — she lets the Cassius Clay punchline stand.

The resignation of the opening title track and the exhilaration of the closing number, a cover of Randy Weeks’s “Don’t Step Away,” serve as contrasting bookends, signs of the record’s emotional ambition.

Of “Don’t Step Away,” Willis said, “That song to me just sounds like an Austin club.”

While enjoying the independence she has to make a record on her own terms, Willis admitted that she misses the resources of the record industry, which could get a project like Back Being Blue in front of a wider audience.

“We lost the filters that helped get music to peoples’ ears, but I have flexibility and freedom,” Willis concluded. “I’m happy with where I am in my career. I know what I want to do and can do it. I just enjoy it.”

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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