"I can hear my father and his Oklahoma drawl/ I hear my grandmother, oh I can hear them all/ and when you talk like that, I know where I'm from/ with hopes like that I know where I'm from." - Talk Like That - Kelly Willis.

Kelly Willis

Oklahoma born Kelly Willis soared to nirvana as she swapped footlights for the spotlight when at the West Texas wedding of Dixie Chick Emily Irwin and Charlie Robison.

Ms Willis, singing spouse of Charlie's brother Bruce, performed Chuck E's In Love and Dixie Chicks Martie Seidel and Natalie Maines sang their new tune Cowboy, Take Me Away in a 150 year old fort at Cibolo Creek near the tiny towns of Marfa and Alpine.

It was a sequel to the previous Robison nuptials when the sweet refrain of Simon & Garfunkel hit Mrs Robinson farewelled Kelly and Bruce as they kissed and departed the ceremony.

And also a salient signpost to the luck change for a singer who carried a torch for progressive country a decade ago when signed to MCA - home of Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith.

"Bruce got pulled up for speeding en route but we got out of it when he said we're here for a wedding, - Emily & Charlie," Kelly told Nu Country in a call from her adoptive home town of Austin, Texas.

Equally importantly it was a welcome break in Kelly's rigorous touring and promo schedule prompted by the chart topping success of her fifth album What I Deserve on Rykodisc.

Kelly bounced Earle from Americana chart tops when her comeback album broke a six-year drought after she walked the MCA plank in 1993 with three widely lauded discs.
It was a horrific hiatus for the singer who was signed by the Nashville label boss Tony Brown - former Presley and Hot Band pianist - as the new Emmylou.

"I was his pet project for those three albums," the Oklahoma oriole says, "I think he had high hopes of me crossing the bridge between the Lyle-Nanci audience the mainstream country. That was too hefty a request for me. I was 20 when he signed me. I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do."

It was a culture shock for Kelly, born in Lawton, Oklahoma, but raised in Virginia after her parents - an Army Colonel and a singing actress - split when she was nine.


Kelly fronted The Fireballs at 16 and headed to Austin at 19 where Radio Ranch, helmed by her first husband Mas Palermo, was her springboard.

It was there she attracted the attention of Brown who allowed her to use Radio Ranch and top studio musos on her debut disc Well Travelled Love.

Although her debut, second disc Bang Bang Bang and self titled third album all sold about 60,000 she was $1.5 million in hock to MCA when she split.

Kelly signed an abortive A & M deal and demoed diverse originals under the tutelage, ironically, of Earle's fifth ex-wife Theresa Ensenat - the A & R person who signed Guns N Roses.

"She was wonderful, she let me get in the studio every time I wrote a song to work it up," says Kelly, "she was a very important part of the record. She got me together with Gary Louris who I wrote many songs with. She got me together with others but it wasn't as cool as what happened with me and Gary. It was natural and easy."

Although the writing partnership produced Take Me Down and the Rykodisc album title track What I Deserve all that survived from the A & M sessions was an EP, Fading Fast, which only scored Texas release by Dallas indie label Crystal Clear.

The single was recut for What I Deserve which fermented for 18 months before rebirth in Austin after a stormy San Francisco sidetrack.

"It was frustrating as I was with A & M for 2 years," Kelly revealed, "I never did a full album. I did a lot of demos. I'm glad it turned out the way it did because I could have given them a record and got dropped. It's been a frustrating five years but I found myself creatively and musically in those 5 years. I had to do it that way, it never would have happened any other way."

Ms Willis appeared on 13 different recording projects - compilations and movie soundtracks - to stoke her creative fires.

"During that down time any time I got asked to do something I would do it," she revealed, "I needed to be working, a lot of that stuff I didn't get paid for. I wanted to be in the studio, to be creative, didn't want to sit still. It was good for me, my mental state, to be in the studio."


Since then Ms Willis has gigged with acts diverse as Steven Seagal, the Dali Lama, Beth Orton and the wide cast of Lilith Fair.

"Bruce and I did a show for English speaking people in Nepal," Kelly revealed, "Steven Seagal and the Dali Lama were there. Steven got up with us and did some Dylan songs. He is a Lama. It was a good photo opportunity and got publicity back home in Texas."

Her profile landed her a part as a protest singer Clarissa Flan in 1992 movie Bob Roberts and songs in Thelma & Louise, Boys and other movies.
"I kind of exaggerated how well I could play the guitar because I just wanted to get the part so badly," Kelly confessed.

Kelly Willis with Bruce Robison

"I just played a folk singer. Luckily I didn't have to act at all. I didn't have to audition."
Kelly and Dwight Yoakam also landed roles in CBS TV series, PS, I Love You.

"Dwight and I we were the murder suspects, we were country singers," Kelly added, "my role shrunk. I was called in to replace Lorrie Morgan who had a huge role. They called me in two days before they were going to shoot. The saving grace was they got me to sing Take Me - the George and Tammy duet - with Dwight."

But it's her own roots she celebrates three decades later in the stone country tune, Talk Like That.


"It's the fastest song I've ever written," Kelly says, "I was at a press conference with Ricky Skaggs for a country festival in Cancun, Mexico. No-one was asking me questions but the sound of his voice and words he chose to use made me remember my family. I was an Army brat, we moved round a lot. My parents divorced when I was 9. I felt disconnected my whole life but I instantly connected. I went straight to my hotel and wrote that song in less than two hours."

Although Kelly jokes about doing a song penned by her singing spouses she's not keen to write with Bruce.

"One of my lines on stage is usually that my husband and ex-husband wrote this song together so that qualifies me to be a country singer," says Ms Willis, "it's a little strange but we're all friends."

She cut Bruce's tunes Wrapped and Not Forgotten You for this album but won't cross the marital line.

"I try really hard to keep separate when it comes to that portion of making music," Kelly says, "it's easier to get upset with somebody you're not that close to. If you are writing with a stranger he or she won't take it personally. With your husband you might take it personally if he doesn't like some thing you come up with."

Ms Willis also wrote two of the new tunes with John Leventhal - producer and husband of Rodney Crowell's ex wife Rosanne Cash - in his New York city studio.


Willis reverted to Adelaide born singer Paul Kelly for Cradle Of Love - a fertile foil for the angst of some of her own songs - and an Aussie mike.

She also cut the Kelly tunes Hidden Things on Bang Bang Bang and Smoke on Easy.

"Paul's one of my favourite writers," says Ms Willis, "he was the only writer I asked my publisher to send me songs by when I went to record. I listened to a lot of his songs. This had a nice bluegrass feel on the chorus. It felt real earthy. I loved the sentiment of the song. That's why I chose it."

And the Australian Rode Classic tube microphone?

"It sounded a little warmer and live," she says.

But the singer didn't write with Lyle Lovett although an Austin meeting with Lyle inspired the Dale Watson tune Caught.


"I never wrote with Lyle but he produced some demos for me that got me my A & M record deal," she says, "I needed to go and make demos. I didn't have any money. I tried to get Pete Anderson to help me but he turned me down. I was telling Lyle about it and he said 'I'll do it.' I said really, so we went in and recorded 3 songs that he produced."

Ironically, Ms Willis duetted with Watson on the old Moe Bandy hit It's A Cheating Situation on the concept album Wandering Eyes - Songs Of Forbidden Love on Asleep At The Wheel drummer Dave Sanger's Lazy Son Of A Bitch Records.

"Dave put the whole project together with people from different bands so it wouldn't be billed as one artist," says Kelly who cut Me And Mrs Jones.

"That was really hard for me because that was a soul song. I felt like this white girl trying to sing soul music, it wasn't real natural for me. I'll probably never sing that song live but I got a real kick out of it. It seemed to me like the last thing you'd expect to hear me singing."

Well, except for Caught.

"I consider myself a country artist," says Kelly, "I just think country is a real diverse format. There's a lot of different stuff that's country but I also think that I'll have a pretty hard time getting played on country radio again. I know there are restrictions in what's played on the radio. I love country music and I'm proud to be considered part of it. What can I do if can't get played on radio?"

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