Kelly Willis has the most uncomfortable-making way of saying “thank you.” Live a few weekends ago I heard her say it at least a dozen times, tossed off after songs, every time rolling off as the most deferential, sweetest gull-darned sign of appreciation. Billy Bob Thornton in his yokel mode couldn’t play it any better, any more the easygoing southerner just begging with a sincere smile for an oil tanker to flatten him. Thank you, she says, as many times as the Dixie Chicks have safety pins, one for every tooth in Billy Bob’s head, and every single one of them breaks your fucking heart.
Any fan of honky-tonk girl Willis has meditated on the tanker that ran over her career: fresh out of the bars, she went to Nashville in 1989, riding high on a contract signed with Tony Brown at MCA. Brown seemed like a queenmaker, she sang like a hillbilly queen, and at a moment when Mary Chapin-Carpenters and Rosanne Cashes were bubbling up, country music was looking for fresher faces. Brown produced Willis’s first album, made her fire her band for the second one, and both were fatally flawed by his narrowcasting—her voice attracted attention, but the singer herself came across on 1990’s Well Traveled Love and ’91’s Bang Bang as characterless and faux frisky. As relations decayed between her and Brown, 1993’s Kelly Willis came out, and maybe because she wasn’t listening to Brown, this was the first record that didn’t seem aimed at a niche, that seemed the work of a songwriter as well as a singer. But by then it was too late, and MCA had decided to bail. A&M was briefly interested, and put out an EP in 1994 that was so good it was commercially available only in Texas. Around this time Willis got perhaps the most attention of her whole career; unfortunately, it came when the National Enquirer put a photograph of her leaving Lyle Lovett’s motel room on its cover. With out a record contract, with a devoted following that knew there was a per son to go with that voice, she became the subject of the kind of worshipful stories that must have sunk her own heart, the kind of story that describes an artist as too good for commercial success.
When in truth, she’s merely good enough. Her voice is full of hurt met dead-on, unashamed hurt, hurt accepted with tenderness and forgive ness, hurt she walks away from and then says thank you. They’re always there, these feelings. Even performing as Clarissa Flan and singing the eternal “Drugs Are Dumb” in Tim Robbins’s flick Bob Roberts, it was only natural she was cast as muse to his right-wing demagogue. You would follow this voice to the mountains, and, should it come to this, to the bonfires as well.
A song on Willis’s new What I Deserve: “Not Forgotten You,” writ ten by Bruce Robison. Willis sings about a lover who’s gone, searching for signs of his influence. Time passes, it’s like footprints in the sand, all that kind of stuff, but the thing is that deep down the song isn’t even about how she remembers him—she’s talking about ways she yearns to be remembered. A bad relationship, a re cording history that hasn’t amounted to much; did it even happen? “If I ran so far that my life couldn’t follow me/Would it keep the world from up and swallowing me?” she asks on “Fading Fast.” And she keeps asking it, over harmonies, violin, mandolin, and lap steel. The album is about get ting over on a past you aren’t proud of, about escaping marks the past has left on you so you might leave a better imprint in the days that are left.
The songs sound casually assembled, the record doesn’t announce it self as thematically unified. This is the cheapest record she’s made, and its sound is pure honky-tonk serviceability. One saving grace of that doomed EP is that she hooked up with WilcoJay Farrar and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris; and on the three new songs cowritten with Louris and on those without him, she pushes well past the simple eagerness of her major-label past, sounding adventurous without sounding alternative-anything. Her attitude meshes perfectly with the writers she covers, including Dan Penn and Chuck Prophet, Nick Drake and Austin’s Damon Bramblett. Even Paul Westerberg’s “They’re Blind” gets transformed, losing the scathing self-pity it had as the Replacements’ fare well; it’s no longer a sad song about not getting your props, there’s dignity and a touch of rage in there. Some how it’s not about what happened to her, it’s about what simply happens—you live your life and, usually, few notice. And you don’t give up. The title song couldn’t make her theme any clearer, it’s a self-hater’s anthem sung by someone who refuses to leave it at that. She’s been kicked and blames herself for the bruises. But then she says the person who got kicked isn’t who she really is. And that the kicks aren’t gonna keep her from getting what she deserves.
She says her thank-yous like a good girl taking her lumps from the world. But then she sings, and you hear the places the world can’t reach.