My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Spotlight Artist: Kelly Willis

Kelly WillisOur August spotlight artist isn’t someone you’ve heard a lot of on the radio, but she has long been a favorite of critics and the MKOC staff writers.

Kelly Willis was born on October 2, 1968, in Lawton, Oklahoma and spent her high school years in Annandale, Virginia. During that time she became the lead singer of a rockabilly band. Shortly after graduating from high school, she married the band’s drummer and moved to Austin, Texas. The band didn’t survive very long, but Willis quickly caught the attention of two famous Texas musicians — Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, who were both signed to MCA Records at the time. Griffith and Lovett convinced Tony Brown to offer Willis a contract, and she joined the label’s roster in 1989. Her first album, Well Traveled Love, produced by Brown and John Guess, was well received by critics and well promoted by MCA, but it was not commercially successful. Her two subsequent albums for MCA didn’t fare much better. Without any hit records and uncomfortable with the sexy image that MCA was trying to create for her, Willis departed the label in 1994.

During her tenure with MCA, Willis’ marriage to her high school sweetheart ended. She began dating Texas songwriter Bruce Robison in 1992. The pair married in 1996 and eventually became the parents of four children. Also, in 1996, Willis released an EP called Fading Fast for A&M, which performed about as well as her MCA albums. It was her only project for the label. After leaving A&M, she began recording for independent labels, and although none of them produced any hit singles, all of them charted higher than her major label efforts on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. 2002’s Easy, released by Rykodisc, is her highest charting solo effort, peaking at #29.

In 2008, the demands of family life caused Willis to put her career on hold and she has performed and recorded only sporadically since then. Her two most recent efforts, last year’s Cheater’s Game and Our Year, which was released this past May, are both collaborations with Bruce Robison and both were reviewed here at time of their release. We hope that you’ll enjoy our look back at an artist who, despite a lack of mainstream recognition, is a talented vocalist and songwriter who desrves to be heard.

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5 responses to “Spotlight Artist: Kelly Willis

  1. Leeann Ward August 1, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    I love Kelly Willis! I’m excited about this choice for August’s spotlight!

  2. Pingback: Birthplace of Country Music Museum Opens; Musgraves Goes Platinum (and Gold); New Music Videos - Engine 145

  3. luckyoldsun August 5, 2014 at 1:06 am

    I remember when MCA released Kelly’s “Bang Bang” in 1991. It sounded great, she looked great–and MCA was having no trouble launching artists like Trisha Yearwood at the time. I still have no idea why they couldn’t get radio to play anything off of that album.

  4. Paul W Dennis August 6, 2014 at 10:40 pm

    There were three really fine female singers that arrived at about the same time in Donna Ulisse, Karen Tobin and Kelly Willis. None of them experienced the level of success I would have hoped for them. Donna Ulisse recently reemerged as a bluegrass singer, Kelly Willis has done two recent duet albums with her husband Bruce Robison, a far less talented singer than Kelly, and Karen Tobin has seemingly disappeared

    Oh well

  5. Jordan Stacey August 22, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    I love Kelly, I don’t own all her material but I’m working on it!

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