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What occurred in the Nashville music machine and mainstream country music is our fault. Our collective guilt is due to the passive way we comply when our music devolves into a corporate advertisement rather than a human expression drawn from “real” lives. Country music was and still is the best full heart expression of human suffering expressed in song (see cathartic) that has a productive healing benefit to human beings of all castes (prosperous, poor, red or blue state). Today’s mainstream country music is just like the formulaic pop music that passes for quality music. Now, this author sounds like a purist snob, doesn’t he?

Quality has a way of making its way through the bland noise, not despite but because we all know better. Waylon and Willie were right, and artists today like Chris Stapleton have risen due to the qualitative human heart need. When you’re hurting, a song about taking your Silverado 4X4 down the beach with a bed full of bud lite just doesn’t cut it.

Kelly Willis is a Waylon and Willie artist of the highest order who should be on every Nashville station today, especially when What I Deserve first arrived. What I Deserve is the fourth studio album by Kelly Willis, released more than six years after her eponymous album. The album was her highest on the Billboard country charts at #30. Bruce Robison, Kelly’s husband and sometimes producer, wrote two of the tracks

Country music’s critical darling for well over a decade, Kelly Willis took the rugged, edgy country rock of Austin, Texas, brought it to the center of the country industry in Nashville, and then returned to Austin in the late 1990s so that she could keep her creative vision foremost in her career. Once named one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world in People magazine’s annual listing, Willis, virtually alone among country singers, showed up in magazines like Vogue during her stint in Nashville. But she kept the camera lens secondary to her singing and purposefully continued to work out a musical style that combined rockabilly toughness with country heartache. Boldly inviting comparisons between herself and the legendary country-pop singer Patsy Cline, she has received several that were not unfavorable.

Willis was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1968, but as a young child, she lived in several different places. Her father, a U.S. Army colonel, divorced her mother when Willis was nine. Her mother had played the piano and acted in musicals, and in her absence, Willis began to sing to herself very frequently. In an interview with Rolling Stone’s Karen Schoemer, she recalled her father’s reaction: “Well, that means you’re happy,” he said. “But actually,” Willis continued, “I think … it’s more to help you if you’re unhappy. That’s what it was for me.”

She spent most of her teen years in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Annandale, Virginia, and remembers driving and singing along with a tape that had Patsy Cline’s music on one side and blues-rock cult favorites NRBQ on the other. She talked her way into the job of lead vocalist with her boyfriend’s rockabilly band; afterward, the band name became Kelly and the Fireballs. Willis went along when the band moved to the musically overflowing city of Austin, Texas, in 1987. Her “rigorous” father disapproved, she told Rob Tannenbaum of Rolling Stone.

In Austin, Willis encountered a great variety of musical influences. The city, located squarely in the middle of country music’s Texan heartland, had a music scene in the late 1980s that mixed the country heritage with an experimental spirit that admitted rockabilly, blues, and even the brittle gloom of alternative rock. Willis, who by 1990 was fronting a band called Radio Ranch, absorbed these influences and rose to the top of Austin’s intensely competitive live-music hierarchy. She was only 21 years old.

Word of Willis’s talents reached country music’s power brokers in several stages. She made a strong impression with a performance at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival, an annual spring meeting of great importance in music industry circles. The Texan folk singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith brought Willis to their attention. Finally, MCA president Tony Brown, who had already championed innovative country newcomers Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett, called Willis to Nashville. After a showcase at the Bluebird Cafe, one of the Nashville nightspots most frequented by music industry figures, she signed with MCA Records.

Willis’s first album, 1990’s Well Travelled Love, immediately vaulted into several critics’ year-end, best-of-the-season lists. Her voice, full-throated and passionate, attracted the most attention. Jan Hoffman wrote in the Village Voice that as a singer, Willis had “the smooth confidence of a power-lifter oiled for competition.”

 


Kelly Willis by Lyza Renee Photography

Don’t Step Away  Kelly Willis (Official Music Video)

Released Jun 15, 2018

Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis bring their Holiday Shindig to Gruene Hall on Dec. 2, 2017

Music video by Kelly Willis performing “Don’t Step Away” from her new album, Back Being Blue (Thirty Tigers).

Filmed by Spencer Peeples
Produced by Bruce Robison
Music in this video

Song
Don’t Step Away
Artist
Kelly Willis
Album
Don’t Step Away
Licensed to YouTube by
The Orchard Music (on behalf of Premium Records); BMG Rights Management (US), LLC, and 4 Music Rights Societies

This snappy li’l number jumps up and grabs your full attention. I love the Spring ahead/forward vibe of this track! This grainy b&w says the traditional old school, but we already know Kelly is the queen of putting the hurt back in Country Music. Her Honest Country singer/songwriter brother, Tyler Childers, from another mother, has already been celebrated on Durham Cool and everywhere quality matters.  This is a great, almost overlooked track from 2018 that now finds its way onto Durham Cool for the first time.

Flowers March 2023 Ithaca NY Taylor Place by Paul Langan

4 years ago

A clever and catchy song from a terrific album. The band is great and nobody sings better than Kelly Willis. I would never step away from her music.

 

 

Daniel Gawrys

Kelly Willis with Acoustic Guitar strung over her back
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CR’s Take

OVERALL SCORE
73

CR RECOMMENDED

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Kelly Willis sitting in chair with Acoustic guitar on lap wearing black t shirt

 

Episode 11 – Austin’s own Kelly Willis debuts songs from her album Back Being Blue at Ice Cream Factory Studios.

Flowers in Ithaca NY taylor Place by Paul Langan March 23, 2023
This great song, a strong message (resonates today) remake is worthy of our attention. Kelly does a great job of bringing this song forward into the 21st.
Kelly Willis
Kelly Willis B&W with Guitar
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison looking out the rear window of flat bead truck
Daffodil with rain drops
daffodil bloom not opened yet with drops of rain

Kelly Willis – Harper Valley PTA (Studio Version)

Song
Harper Valley Pta
Artist
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison
Album
Our Year
Licensed to YouTube by
The Orchard Music (on behalf of Premium Records); EMI Music Publishing, BMI – Broadcast Music Inc., Warner Chappell, CMRRA, PEDL, and 3 Music Rights Societies

Harper Valley Pta
Song by Jeannie C. Riley
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Lyrics
I wanna tell you all a story ’bout
A Harper Valley widowed wife
Who had a teenage daughter
Who attended Harper Valley Junior High
Well, her daughter came home one afternoon
And didn’t even stop to play
And she said, “mom, I got a note here from the Harper Valley PTA”
Well, the note said, “Mrs. Johnson
You’re wearin’ your dresses way too high
It’s reported you’ve been drinking
And a-running ’round with men and goin’ wild
And we don’t believe you oughta be a-bringin’ up
Your little girl this way”
And it was signed by the Secretary
Harper Valley PTA
Well, it happened that the PTA was gonna meet
That very afternoon
And they were sure surprised
When Mrs. Johnson wore her miniskirt into the room
And as she walked up to the blackboard
I can still recall the words she had to say
She said, “I’d like to address this meeting of the Harper Valley PTA
Well, there’s Bobby Taylor sittin’ there
And seven times he’s asked me for a date
And Mrs. Taylor sure seems to use a lotta ice
Whenever he’s away
And Mr. Baker can you tell us why
Your secretary had to leave this town?
And shouldn’t widow Jones be told to keep
Her window shades all pulled completely down
Well, Mr. Harper couldn’t be here
‘Cause he stayed too long at Kelly’s Bar again
And if you smell Shirley Thompson’s breath
You’ll find she’s had a little nip of gin
And then you have the nerve to tell me
You think that as the mother I’m not fit
Well, this is just a little Peyton Place
And you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites”
No, I wouldn’t put you on because it really did
It happened just this way
The day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA
The day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA
Source: LyricFind
Songwriters: Tom T. Hall
Harper Valley Pta lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc

Kelly Willis sitting on chair looking back at camera
Kelly Willis Collage