IN CONCERT: Is this last call for Willis? Current tour could be the last for this all-country rocker, mother of four
By JOSEF WOODARD
There was a time back in the early ’90s when Kelly Willis was poised to take her rightful place in the ranks of alternative country figures then enjoying a rare window of support in Nashville. Mixing roots music elements, country, pop, rockabilly and singer-songwriter sophistication, Willis was a solid up-and-comer in a hybrid genre that also included Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Roseanne Cash and Rodney Crowell.
In a recent interview from her home in Austin, Texas, Willis — who plays in the Sings Like Hell series Saturday at the Lobero Theatre — recalls “unfortunately, I was only 20 and I hadn’t written any songs. I was in a band where my husband was the songwriter. I was just really green and not really ready for the challenge yet.
“That is the world that I was coming into and hoping to become a part of, but unfortunately, right as I was stepping in the door, they were kicking all those people out. I was like ‘What? Huh? What’s going on?’ It was clear that they were done with that movement and they wanted to do more big-selling mainstream stuff.”
Fast forward to 2008, and Willis is still making strong, critically acclaimed albums, right up through her impressive and thoughtful “Translated from Love” (Rykodisc). This is her first new album in five years, but she has hardly been inactive, gigging steadily over the years.
Willis figures that Saturday’s show at the Lobero, on a bill with Chuck Prophet (also the producer of her new album) will be her first in Santa Barbara since the early ’90s. Ironically, it may be her last show here — or anywhere — in some time. Willis, who is raising four young children with her husband, singer-songwriter Bruce Robison (who also played in the Sings Like Hell series a few years back), has decided to get off the road and stay closer to home. She plans to continue recording, but avoid the call of touring.
“I turned 40 this year, so I feel like, for my mid-life crisis, I’m giving up gigging,” she says with a soft laugh. “We’ll see what happens next.
“I tried to give it up when my first son was born, but I realized that being a stay-at-home mom was making me crazy. I’m going to approach it differently this time. I’m not just going to be a stay-at-home mom, but will try to get out there and use my brain. I’ve learned my lesson that way. I think a little stability will do us good.”
Embarking on making her new album, Willis remembers that “the main concept at first was that I just wanted it to be fun and electric. The record I made before was called ‘Easy,’ and it was an acoustic, quiet kind of a record. Since I didn’t have a new record for five years, that’s the one I’ve been playing for five years and I was ready to have some fun and to get loud. So I asked Chuck (Prophet) to produce it, because I thought he’d be perfect for taking the reins of that kind of a project.”
Willis’ husband shows up for a couple of cameos, although the couple has learned to keep some distance between their careers.
“We always show up on each other’s records in some way,” she says. “Mostly, it’s just with harmonies, but I also typically record some of his songs, although I didn’t this time. Other than that, we really try to keep separate. We do holiday shows together every year, Christmas shows, and that’s all we do, unless it’s some private party where they offered us so much money, we couldn’t say no,” she laughs.
“But we’ve learned that we need to have our separate worlds, so that we can appreciate each other more. Otherwise, we end up bickering or getting annoyed with the other one’s work. We don’t need any of that in our lives.
“We’re also both used to running the show. We may not be real bossy or anything, but we’re used to kind of running the pacing of the show. Being onstage with each other requires a great deal of patience and sharing. It’s much more of a challenge than you might think.”
Willis may not have caught much of a commercial wave early in her career, but her strong, unpretentious way with a song has always scored highly in spheres of influence with discerning listeners, whether critics, or devoted fans. So while there may be some residual frustration in missing the fame bus early on, she appreciates the slow, steady growth pattern of her musical life.
“With something that I love so much and am passionate about,” she says, “you want people to know that you exist. Whenever I do make a record, I feel like people pay attention. Even though I’m not moving in those mover-and-shaker worlds, I do feel that people will pay attention to it and review it and talk about it. That’s very rewarding.”
Comparing the Nashville of the early ’90s with that of today, Willis notes “major labels aren’t investing anything in these career artists who are not going to make them insane amounts of money, but that are worth developing because it’s good music. They’re doing all this pop idol stuff, in country music. They just really want people who can be like pop stars and sell tons of records. There is a huge gap.
“I feel like there are so many people out there who are dying to hear real music and they’re kind of keeping everyone afloat by coming to the shows. It’s kind of like that mom-and-pop burger stand in the middle of a million McDonalds. Those McDonalds are doing great. They are not hurting for customers. But there is a certain clientele that loves to go to that real burger joint that’s been there since 1952. That’s what it feels like to be an alt-country musician these days.”