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Kelly Willis

Kelly Willis

  • Americana
  • Country

On some other plane out there in the great big multiverse, Kelly Willis could well be the biggest Nashville country music star of the last 35 years. But things panned out rather differently for her here on this Earth. The Oklahoma-born Army brat was barely into her early 20s and still cutting her teeth fronting a spunky rockabilly band in Austin when a “check-this-kid-out” tip from Texas songwriter Nanci Griffith landed her on the radar of producer Tony Brown, who promptly signed her to MCA Records. But it wasn’t until she left Nashville for Texas that she took off. Liberated from the Nashville playbook and emboldened by a jolting shot of nothing-left-to-lose, she set about making her next record in Austin her way. The end result, 1999’s aptly-titled What I Deserve, changed everything. What I Deserve may not have made Kelly a household name on the order of Shania, Faith, or Reba, but it clinched her standing as a bona fide darling of the national (and international) alt-country scene. Writers from No Depression to Rolling Stone cheered her “comeback,” and fans in her adopted hometown voted it “Album of the Year” in the Austin Music Awards.
The six albums Willis has made since What I Deserve have only burnished her reputation as Austin’s reigning queen of Americana. Three of those albums, including 2019’s Beautiful Lie, were duo records made with her now ex-husband, fellow singer-songwriter Bruce Robison — who also produced Willis’ last solo album, 2018’s “richly satisfying” (NPR) Back Being Blue. The couple (who in addition to recording and touring together for years also raised four children together) announced their separation in early 2022, marking both the end of an era and the beginning of yet another “big sea change” for Willis.

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