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Adjusting Her Aim 

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Kelly Willis

What I Deserve

(Rykodisc)

By Peter Margasak

Maybe you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can tell a few things about a country singer by her hairdo. On the first of three poor-selling albums for MCA's vaunted Nashville division, Well Travelled Love, Kelly Willis looked like a bookish bumpkin proudly displaying her first perm; as if in desperation, her coif grew even poofier on her 1991 follow-up, Bang Bang. But on the cover of her brand-new album, What I Deserve, her stringy blond hair is parted down the center and tucked behind her ears, framing her chiseled features and square jaw in a manner that highlights her all-American beauty with minimal fuss. And correspondingly, she's never sounded more comfortable in her own musical skin.

Following her breakup with MCA, not long after the label released Kelly Willis in 1993, the Austin singer embarked on a painstaking process of rediscovering herself. And once she got it figured out, her new label, Rykodisc, was happy to take her as she was, instead of crafting an identity for her, as Nashville often does for young artists. Though What I Deserve isn't a radical makeover, Willis wrote half the songs on it herself--as opposed to a total of five on her three previous albums--and the production, though by no means raw, lacks the nauseating glaze common to most contemporary Nashville output.

When Tony Brown--the MCA honcho who had ushered left-field talent like Lyle Lovett, the Mavericks, Nanci Griffith, and Steve Earle into the country mainstream--signed Willis in 1989, she was only 20 and exceptionally malleable. A few years earlier she'd moved to Austin from Washington, D.C., with the rockabilly band Kelly & the Fireballs. Drummer Mas Palermo, her boyfriend, wrote most of the group's songs. They found moderate success in the clubs, but before long several Austin locals, including longtime retro-country fixture Monte Warden and Carlyne Majer, who'd later become Willis's manager, suggested she convert to country. She took their advice, reconfiguring the band as Radio Ranch and impressing Griffith, who tipped off Brown.

Brown allowed Radio Ranch to support Willis on Well Travelled Love, but as producer, he supplemented Palermo's repertoire with tunes by the likes of Earle, John Hiatt, and Warden. The record, an energetic mix of twang, pop hooks, and rockabilly energy slathered with that ubiquitous Nashville gloss, garnered plenty of good reviews but little airplay on country radio--the lifeblood of the industry. MCA pushed her to record the follow-up a mere nine months later--without Radio Ranch--and, not surprisingly, her new marriage to Palermo went south.

Along with a raft of Nashville session players, Brown called in proven hit makers Kostas and Jim Lauderdale to provide songs on Bang Bang. The album was a touch more consistent than its predecessor, but despite the increased corporate presence it sounded pretty much the same as her debut. "Baby Take a Piece of My Heart" became a Top 40 video hit, and the powers that be engineered Willis some plum opening spots on tours by Alan Jackson and Clint Black.

For the third album she was set up with producer Don Was, who'd worked with everyone from Bonnie Raitt to the B-52's, and his distance from the country machine afforded Willis the opportunity to do her most distinctive work yet. The album featured a better batch of songs than either of the others, and Was used Nashville players noted for their good taste, like Kieran Kane, Mike Henderson, Glenn Worf, and Richard Bennett. Willis's voice sounded better than ever: she'd figured out how to control her seductive quaver; she was learning how to luxuriate in the ballads, like the lovely duet with Kevin Welch "That'll Be Me"; and on upbeat material like Marshall Crenshaw's pop-inflected "Whatever Way the Wind Blows" she no longer sounded breathless.

But though the MCA machine had enough muscle to get her cast as painfully earnest folksinger Clarissa Flan in Tim Robbins's 1992 political satire Bob Roberts and chosen by People magazine as one of its 50 most beautiful people in May 1994, it couldn't get her that coveted airplay, and sales of all three albums lingered around 60,000. Bang Bang is her only MCA album still in print.

Three years later she attracted the attention of A&M Records on the strength of demos made with Lyle Lovett. But after the label issued a four-song promotional EP, Fading Fast (since reissued in a limited edition by the Crystal Clear label), in 1996, the old corporate shuffle led to the departure of her A and R rep, Teresa Ensenat. Willis, probably wisely, took advantage of a clause in her contract that allowed her to bail under such circumstances. But she took something very important with her: Ensenat had sent her into the studio with alternative-country heavies like Son Volt, Sixteen Horsepower, and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, the cream of a crop Willis admits she'd been oblivious to until then.

Working with musicians who borrowed liberally from the country tradition but operated independently of the Nashville system proved a liberating experience. She decided to make her next album on her own--though Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis helped finance the recording of what would become What I Deserve in exchange for the right to release it in Europe, and the formidable cast of supporting musicians includes trusted Austinites like Lloyd Maines, Amy Noelle Farris (nee Tiven), Jon Dee Graham, and Willis's second husband, Bruce Robison, as well as alt-rock session aces like Mark Spencer and Chuck Prophet. She cowrote several songs with Louris and covered others by ex-Replacement Paul Westerberg and British folk mope Nick Drake. Rykodisc signed Willis in fall 1998, after the album was completed.

The musical differences between What I Deserve and its predecessors are far more subtle than you might expect. A recent review in Entertainment Weekly is typical of the easy generalizations that have been made in advance press for the new album: Willis was stifled by cornball production and hack songwriting in Nashville, the story goes, but now, free of the machine, she's able to be her wild, carefree self. In reality, although Willis does get in some nice digs about artistic integrity (like "Now I have done / The best I can / Oh, but what I've done / It's not who I am / And oh, what I deserve," from the title track), and although the drums sound like drums instead of chunks of Styrofoam being shot up with BBs, her singing follows the same basic patterns and the songs straddle country and country-rock modes as always. "I thought I could make a Lone Justice record in Nashville, and that's the type of thing I wanted to do," she recently told the Austin Chronicle.

And while numbers like Damon Bramblett's lilting "Heaven Bound," Robison's can't-let-go ditty "Wrapped," and Dan Penn and Chuck Prophet's warm country-soul tune "Got a Feelin' For Ya" are as strong as anything she's recorded (and vastly superior to anything Lone Justice ever did), thanks to lackluster material like Westerberg's "They're Blind" and her own self-helpish "Happy With That" ("It's no good to lose heart / It's no good to lose sight / It's no good to have nowhere to go that feels right"), What I Deserve is not the brilliant album MCA prevented Willis from making. She may not have a brilliant album in her.

The real difference between the new release and Willis's MCA catalog is in the expectations, not the music. As she also said in the Chronicle, Willis is hoping to sell about 100,000 copies of What I Deserve--a respectable figure, but beans compared to the numbers her Nashville handlers wanted to see. No doubt Rykodisc will push for country radio support, but the publicity campaign targets the rock market, and specifically its alt-country subset. When Willis started at MCA, No Depression wasn't even a fanzine, much less a genre; now the time is ripe for her to emerge as the commercial face of an increasingly marketable niche. And unlike Jeff Tweedy, whom the movement embraced and not vice-versa, she's glad to do it. She has neither the outsize personality and raw talent of a Lucinda Williams nor the quasi-liberated sex-kitten appeal of Shania Twain, but she's a looker and she can sing her ass off. And with more moderate goals, she seems destined for the kind of success she's wanted all along.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kelly Willis photo by Michael Gomez/ album cover.

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