A favorite with critics and the alt-country and Americana communities, Kelly Willis is a gifted singer and songwriter whose vocals can move from sunny clarity to passionate grit depending on the needs of the tune. Willis launched her recording career in 1990 with the album Well Travelled Love, but she first hit her creative stride with the 1999 independent release What I Deserve. Since then, Willis has carved out a comfortable niche writing and recording at her own relaxed pace, often in collaboration with her spouse, Bruce Robison (2013's Cheater's Game and 2014's Our Year), while 2002's Easy and 2007's Translated from Love were fine examples of her talent and charm.
Born in Lawton, Oklahoma on October 2, 1968, Willis picked up her interest in music from her mother, who liked to sing and appeared in amateur musicals. Her parents divorced when she was young, and Kelly and her siblings lived with their father, who was a colonel in the United States Army. Willis and her family moved frequently, and when she was nine, she started singing and writing songs to deal with her feelings about her parents' breakup. Willis attended high school in Annandale, Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C., and one day she impulsively recorded a version of Elvis Presley's "Teddy Bear" in a "record your voice" booth. Her boyfriend (and future husband), Mas Palermo, immediately asked the 16-year-old Willis to join his rockabilly band, and her powerhouse vocals were so popular with club audiences that the group was soon renamed Kelly & the Fireballs in her honor. After Willis graduated high school, the band moved to Austin, Texas, only to break up six months later.
As they planned their next move, Willis learned to play guitar while drummer Palermo honed his songwriting chops. The duo started a new band, Radio Ranch, with guitarist David Murray, steel player Michael Hardwick, and bassist Michael Foreman. One of Radio Ranch's performances so impressed singer Nanci Griffith that she began lobbying her label, MCA, to sign the group, leading to Willis' 1990 debut, Well Travelled Love. Despite the presence of the full band, only Kelly's name appeared on the album jacket, and despite glowing reviews, the LP fared poorly. Her 1991 sophomore effort, Bang Bang, once again won good press notices, but they did not translate to radio airplay, let alone chart ranking.
For her third album, a more personal effort largely comprising her own songs, Willis joined forces with superstar producer Don Was; the self-titled 1993 effort once again received strong reviews but minimal sales, and she was dropped by MCA shortly after its release. Following a few years of relative inactivity, she resurfaced in 1995, duetting with Son Volt's Jay Farrar on the benefit compilation Red Hot and Bothered, and after issuing a 1996 independent label EP, Fading Fast (which featured members of Son Volt and the Jayhawks), she announced plans for a 1997 LP on A&M. However, her deal with A&M wilted without her cutting an album for the label, though they did give the Fading Fast EP a limited reissue. In late 1996, Willis married fellow Austin musician and songwriter Bruce Robison.
As the '90s drew to a close, Willis inked a deal with the respected indie label Rykodisc. Her fourth album, What I Deserve, appeared in 1999 and it was a creative and commercial breakthrough for Willis. Time magazine hailed the album as "the smartest, most consistently worthwhile country CD" to have been released that year, and the sales were an improvement on her MCA releases. Three years later, Willis returned to the scene with another album for Ryko, Easy, which included collaborative efforts with Vince Gill, Union Station's Dan Tyminski, and Nickel Creek's Chris Thile. Willis tossed her hat into the crowded Yuletide scene in 2006 with the amiable Happy Holidays, recorded in tandem with Robison, followed by her seventh album, the Chuck Prophet-produced Translated from Love in 2007.
In 2008, Willis announced she was taking some time off from the road to spend more time with her family, as she and Robison were raising four children. She made sporadic appearances, usually as a guest with Robison, but otherwise kept a low profile. She finally emerged from her long silence with Cheater's Game, a collaborative album with Robison that was produced by Brad Jones. The set featured songs by Dave Alvin, Robert Earl Keen, Hayes Carll, and others; it was released in time for Valentine's Day in 2013. Critical and popular reception of the recording proved so promising, the two decided to collaborate on another set of duets with the same producer. Our Year was released in the spring of 2014. In 2018, Willis released her first solo effort since 2007; Back Being Blue included ten songs, six written by Willis, with Robison serving as producer. ~ Jason Ankeny & Mark Deming