The lesson a music fan can take away from the career of Kelly Willis may be this: If you resist the manipulation of major-label tools, you might not be invited to walk the red carpet at the CMAs. But at least there’s a chance you will earn respect through the virtue of solid songwriting and performing skills, and still get to be the same real you.
Recording three albums for MCA, beginning in 1990, Kelly was a promising, attractive — if not a little bland — act that the label had a hard time marketing. After being released from her contract, she recorded an EP, Fading Fast, for A&M. Although that was also not a happy relationship, it was a glimpse at what she was capable of. The highlight of the record, for me at least, was “He Don’t Care About Me,” written by her husband, Bruce Robison, and backed by members of Son Volt and 16 Horsepower. Friends and family would replace the support a label was supposed to provide, and Willis’ career has blossomed as a result.
The records that have followed, 1999’s What I Deserve, 2002’s Easy and 2007’s Translated From Love, are filled with songs the records that country music radio should be championing, if there was still country music radio. Willis has written some of her own best songs, but has also benefited by writing with hubby Robison, Chuck Prophet, and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, and has turned in great covers of the Replacements, Iggy Pop and Nick Drake — not the easiest choices for a waify ingenue.
The song that I keep returning to, and my iTunes counter would prove it, is Willis’ cover of Little Feat’s “Truck Stop Girl” on the 1996 compilation Rig Rock Deluxe. Again backed by members of Son Volt, Willis purrs the tale of heartbreak at the truck stop, the lovesick trucker so devastated by the rejection of his waitressing love that he drives off “without tightening down,” leading to his doom. I love the image of her with “her hair piled up high, the look in her eye that would turn any good man’s blood to wine.” It’s what country music really needs — a sea shanty set in the dusty bays of a giant truck stop, complete with tragedy, bloody wrecks and beehived sirens slinging hash.
And on top, as thick and sweet as melting cheddar on a slice of apple pie, is that voice. Thank God Kelly Willis’ Nashville career was cut short by MCA.