Escape from Nashville

After languishing on Music Row, Kelly Willis pulls up roots and moves to alt-country

The girl on the cover of Kelly Willis's 1991 album Bang, Bang looks like an extra from Saved by the Bell as the Nashville Network would have her. Creamy and dreamy and seemingly no older than 19, she greets us with a face so fresh it could sell parkas in Pensacola. There are two photos of her here. The one on the left is the Platonic ideal of a Mid-American yearbook photo circa 1990; a veritable advertisement for milk and good breeding. The one on the right is more ambitious. Coy and come-hither, this Kelly girl glows; she's post-Nabokov and pre-LeAnn Rimes. Eight years after it first appeared on record store shelves, the album cover meets the male gaze with red, overripe lips and just the proper amount of sexual self-knowledge. LeAnn Rimes? it says. Forget LeAnn Rimes. Iinvented LeAnn Rimes.

Put on 1991's Bang, Bang, a document of Kelly Willis's rocky tenure in Nashville, and you'll hear state-of-the-nanosecond, early-'90s Music Row gloss in tunes like the honky-tonkin' "I'll Try Again," a song that might as well be her career mantra. "Right now, somehow, I'm gonna make a brand-new start," Willis sings, and she truly seems to mean it. Oklahoma-born Kelly Willis had been doing the roots thing for five years--first in D.C. in a band called Kelly and the Fireballs, then in Austin's Ranch Radio--before MCA Nashville president Tony Brown signed her. But despite all the pluck and promise, Willis and her golden voice couldn't move enough units to make it happen on Music Row. Not after three impeccable records. Not after contributions to a number of soundtracks. Not after her inclusion in People's 1994 list of "The World's 50 Most Beautiful People." Willis just didn't have the hits or charisma to match her voice, it seemed. Today all of her Nashville records except Bang, Bang are out of print.

What you talkin' 'bout, Willis? Kelly Willis goes beyond alt-country's No Depression to sing about the merits of feeling good
What you talkin' 'bout, Willis? Kelly Willis goes beyond alt-country's No Depression to sing about the merits of feeling good

Similarly out of print is a key 1996 EP she cut for A&M back in Austin with members of Son Volt and the Jayhawks, the link between her life on MCA and her current identity as an alt-country goddess who has won the collective heart of the No Depression nation since being enlisted into its ranks three years ago. So maybe it's the lack of available product--the sense of a new beginning--that makes Willis's new release What I Deserve (Rykodisc) feel like a groundbreaking debut. In fact, it might be the most encouraging record by a woman in roots rock since Lucinda Williams's self-titled third album of 1988.

The two share little stylistically or culturally. Williams is the daughter of an English prof and of Southern America and has since turned blues mama. Willis is an Oklahoma-born, Virginia-raised army brat-turned-country careerist. But they are both, of course, women working turf that has traditionally been claimed by men. And like Williams's classic album--which came out on the postpunk syndicate Rough Trade but beckoned the mainstream country market--What I Deserve is a roots record that knows it deserves celebration in the world of pop, People, and maybe even the Nashville that cast her aside.

Co-written with a cast of alt-countrymen from Jayhawk Gary Louris to former Green on Red frontman Chuck Prophet, it ties itself to alt-rock tradition with caring covers of Nick Drake's "Time Has Told Me" and the Replacements' "They're Blind." Yet it sparkles with performances that show a greater affinity for Nashville's skin-deep immediacy than alt-country's masculine quest for buried lineage. This is a record in love with surfaces and good vibes, not incredibly smart, though not unwise, and a pleasure trove no matter how you open it.

The woman breathing in the deep oh-ooooh/ye-eeeahs on "Take Me Down," sounds like she thinks she deserves a slice of Sheryl Crow's market share. Similarly, Willis throws herself into the genuinely artificial feel-good soul of the faux-bluesy "Got a Feelin' for Ya." From the way her voice strives to get almost too many miles out of every vowel, to the way she manhandles the gentle Drake during her slow, honky-tonk take on "Time Has Told Me," this is the sound of someone who wants you to want her. With the exception of the ponderous "Not Long for this World," a folky ballad that's as hokey as its title, What I Deserve is one of the stronger country records of the decade.

In a genre where singers are asked to prove their authenticity by sounding as balefully drunk as possible every time they get within pissing distance of a microphone, Willis works the mic with an athletic professionalism and enthusiasm. And she weds her honeyed sense of self-awareness and easy-swinging spunk to a set of songs so strong they smack her backing band of alt-country lifers out of the genre's stupor. When Willis leans back and belts out, "Grab a tail on this big gray whale and do your best to stay brave" on the lilting song "Heaven Bound," you can almost sense guitarists Max Butler, Jon Dee Graham, and Mark Spencer grinning in the studio.

Yet just because she loves an earthy good time more than a plow through Americana's parched fields doesn't mean Willis can't get deep. The lovely, autobiographical "Talk Some" is just as intimately sentimental as an army brat's discovery of her displaced Okie-roots should be. Her version of the Replacements' tale of death in the gears of the Warner Bros. machinery, "They're Blind," turns a complaint into a proud anthem of newfound self-awareness. But the most powerful thing here is the show-closer "What I Deserve," a song that achingly turns its title into a rich metaphor for sexual and spiritual fulfillment, respect, and, most personal, professional success.

In 1988 Lucinda Williams rooted her most hopeful song, "Passionate Kisses," in a similar sentiment, if a more modest list of demands: "food to fill me up, warm clothes, and all that stuff/Shouldn't I have this/Shouldn't I have this/Shouldn't I have this." The difference between the two singers is belief: Williams's voice, which today sounds just a tad self-righteous, knows what it wants and it knows how to get it. Willis's intensity comes from a career spent nearly getting what you want but knowing somebody owes you something more.

 

Kelly Willis plays 9 p.m. at Lee's Liquor Lounge, 101 Glenwood Ave. N., Mpls., (612) 338-9491.

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