Live Review

Heaven’s Just a Backyard Away: Kelly Willis Returns with a Texas-Sized Bang

Kelly Willis on June 9, 2018

Kelly Willis in a soulful moment from her Norfolk, Virginia, concert (Photo by Ron Wray)

Heaven’s just a sin away. Actually, just a few seats. Kelly Willis had made a hit of the Kendalls’ “Heaven” tune some time ago. She had quick success in interpreting others’ songs as well as doing some fine songs of her own.. But, then she had four sons, and had a bout with Lyme Disease, and took a long break from the limelight of country folk music. Now, she’s coming back, at times with her singer-songwriter husband Bruce Robison, at times solo, and, like on her current tour, with her own band.

She recalled getting together with Robison as a complicated process. They met around 1990 in Austin, but she was married to a drummer and Bruce had a girlfriend. They went on a date in 1991 and got married in ’96. They didn’t play together after that, but “kept that at arm’s length.” Then, after playing “for the heck of it” at a Christmas show, they began performing together, eventually playing as a duo for a period of time. But, at this time, she’s gone on the road with her band, and Bruce has “gigs at home in Austin.”

Her songs included a number of her new ones, self-penned. On her new record, Back Being Blue, she wrote six of the 10 songs. But, she’s always been an interpreter of others’ work, likes expressing these songs. “Usually it’s half and half” she told me, “In the past I co-wrote a lot. I was a singer before a songwriter. I have to have a vision of what I want to say. Most of my songs are love songs, though most have a deeper patterns, deeper stories. That’s what they want in country music,” she added, “love gone wrong!”

Willis has a way of releasing passion in her face. The eyes and her expression twist and shine with sad inferences and moments of joy to counter them. There is a maturity there that balances lyrics and melodies with meaning and personal references and honestly reflects the emotional terrain the songs exist in.

Her songs were a blessing in the moderate early summer breezes in house-concert host Jim Morrison’s back yard, under the Mary Wastenays Tent that Mary donated when she died at an early age, a hard core volunteer for Jim for years. Some folks picnicked beforehand in the pleasant surroundings.

Kelly was recipient of one of Jim’s pre-concert self-cooked, gourmet meals served in the comfortable screened-in side porch within view of the stage. She had arrived fresh from the famed Birchmere, having returned to her roots, her “home town” of Alexandria, Virginia, (though born in Oklahoma and often listed as having lived in (very) nearby Annandale, Virginia) hunting for postcards, which she lamented, seem to have disappeared these days.

New songs mingled with older ones, hopeful hits-to-be with top sellers in her past. She came into music as a rocker, a big rockabilly fan, liking Wanda Jackson, followed with interest in “cow punk,” and was influenced by NRBQ. Other influences included Rockpile and Nick Lowe. But, with her pure country voice and a deepening interest in country, she went in that direction. Her soprano voice was described by Rolling Stone as “crackling” and “more devastating than ever.”

Other self-tuned Willis songs include: “What I Deserve,” What I deserve is comfort for my shaken soul/All the water on my hands are tears from long ago/And my skin lets it in, it’s always been too thin/Since I can’t remember when and “Red Sunset,” We used to catch that old train ever night/about a quarter to five/And sit and watch that evening sun go down/upon the mountain side/And with that red sun warming our hearts he told me what we would do/But as his heart grew colder my sunsets/turned to blue. Impeccable phrasing and rhyming keep your spirits high despite all the heartbreak.

Her heart doesn’t seem to be breaking now. Her family and Austin home are sources of contentment, she’s confident in her band, and she’s returning to her rightful spot in the ranks of traditional country as an interpreter and a true original. With most of her gigs on the current tour in larger, Nationally-prominent venues, it was a pleasure to be able to enjoy her work in the backyard intimacy of Jim’s veteran home concert series.