Country singer Kelly Willis may not be a household name in today’s popular country climate, but rest assured, she has a devoted traditional country following, and those lucky enough to catch her on her recent two-week solo tour were in for a treat as she celebrated the Silver Anniversary of her debut album Well Travelled Love.
The Lawton, OK born singer took Annapolis’ Rams Head On Stage by storm on January 27th and prominently featured songs from her 25-year-old debut, starting with the honkeytonk stomper “My Heart’s In Trouble.” From there she and her original band blew through the Steve Earle penned “Hole In My Heart,” and her first single, the classic sounding mid-tempo twangy tearjerker “I Don’t Want To Love You (But I Do).”
It was obvious Willis was excited to play her older material and it was even more apparent on the up-tempo country rocker “Red Sunset,” which in any other venue would have had the crowd dancing (Rams Head is a seated dinner theater style venue). “Looking For Someone Like You” featured Willis’ emotive vocals, slick guitars and an always welcome pedal steel. Before playing the sassy “River of Love,” Willis declared that it was “one of her favorite songs to play” and you could certainly tell it was true, judging from the joyous look on her face.
Willis also spent a considerable time featuring songs from her second album, 1991’s Bang Bang, which included the heartbreaker “The Heart That Love Forgot,” the high energy rockabilly “Bang Bang,” and “Hidden Things” of which she explained, “This one just killed me,” the first time she heard it.
Willis playfully took time to acknowledge her husband and frequent collaborator Bruce Robison (the duo have released a pair of critically acclaimed albums in recent years) by saying she was going to do “Fading Fast” a song that Robison won’t do with her because he couldn’t come up with part to play. Upon finishing the swinging swagger-filled song Willis jokingly added, “Bruce probably could have played a great harmonica on that one.”
She then delved into her 1993 self-titled album with another the gorgeous and mournful “World Without You.”
Adding her cover of “Teddy Boys” from her last solo album 2007’s Translated From Love Willis explained “I just wanted to hear these boys (her original band) play it.” Those boys certainly did not disappoint.
Willis then struck gold with a song she sang for the Thelma & Louise Soundtrack “Little Honey” written by two of my personal favorites John Doe (X) and Dave Alvin (The Blasters). Up next was a fantastic cover of Marshall Crenshaw’s “Whatever Way The Wind Blows.”
Willis returned to her debut album with the very Patsy Cline-esque “One More Time.”
Closing out the set was the John Hiatt penned “Drive South” which she recorded around the same time Suzy Boggess made it famous, and ended with the toe-tappin’ barroom stomper “Well Travelled Love.”
Willis and her band weren’t done though, returning for a cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.” Finally, she finished the fabulous night of music by saying, “This song (“Take It all Out On You”) was written by my husband (Robison) and my ex-husband (drummer Mas Palermo) which qualifies as a country song” to much laughter from the appreciative Ram’s Head audience.
Kelly Willis is a true country artist that deserves to be celebrated. All twang and heart with a voice that makes any good man melt.