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Have Voice, Will Travel

Austin's Kelly Willis gets to see a lot of country as she plays it

At the height of his grandiosity in the early 1970s, Elvis held a press conference after one of his shows and was asked how he managed to maintain his image as a "shy country boy." "I don't know," the King said inquisitively, and stood up to reveal the gold belt buckle keeping his multimillion-sequined jumpsuit together, the answer implicit in his action. Laughter filled the room.

Shy country boy? At this point in Elvis's career, that persona had been long dead. Elvis was pure Vegas, a Mississippi boy who now holed up in a Memphis mansion surrounded by Caddys and covered in gold jewelry. The line between stage and home was very thin, if not altogether invisible. God bless Elvis. But for the rest of the human beings who pass for icons today, image and individual are two distant, unconnectable worlds.

It would be nice to think Kelly Willis sings country songs all day, lounging around in the outfits she wears on her CD covers or in videos, black, stylish, low-cut, form-fitting dresses, with her hair tastefully done up. Too bad that's not how it is.

"I just try to sing my best and be good on stage," says Willis. "I mean, it's not like I don't want to look my best, but usually I walk around the house and look terrible."

"Terrible" might be too ugly a word. Even though Willis doesn't have the high-voltage sex appeal of country's two most Vogue-ish femmes, Faith Hill and Shania Twain, she does have a natural beauty that is girl-next-door-with-a-Saks-Fifth-Avenue-account alluring. Live, the come-hither-ness Willis displays on her CD covers and in her videos is a bit subdued, but her charisma, personal charm and dedication to country music as Hank knew it shine.

Willis comes to Houston this weekend to perform, bringing with her a full band, and plans to play songs off her most recent CD, What I Deserve (Rykodisc).

Willis is from Oklahoma but spent her youth all over, mostly in North Carolina and Virginia. She first got turned on to music when as a teenager she put together Kelly and the Fireballs with some friends, classmates at Annandale High School in Washington, D.C., and actually played live in front of people. "I was a quiet and shy kid," says Willis. "Almost to the point of debilitating. It was nice to know singing was something that was mine. It made me feel unique. I had been blending into the wall my whole life, and now, on stage it made me feel like I had something to offer."

It was at that point, Willis says, that she knew she wanted to dedicate herself to music. "I realized music was the only thing I had a passion for," she says. "It made me happy. I knew I'd do it, no matter what. If I had to sell records out the back of my trunk."

After graduation Kelly and her band moved to Austin, which was once the place for serious singer-songwriters to blossom. Being the beauty that she is, Willis received all the attention. The Fireballs fizzled, and Willis was soon working by herself on her first record, a collection of love songs.

As the story goes, Willis was singing in the Continental Club one night when Nanci Griffith walked in. Griffith, seemingly impressed, called a bigwig at MCA and told him what she had heard. Not long after, Willis was signed and sitting in Nashville, and Well Traveled Love, her first, was released in 1990. It was followed by Bang Bang (1991) and Kelly Willis (1993), all on MCA. Willis and MCA split acrimoniously in the mid-1990s, leading Willis to a deal with A&M Records. She released Fading Fast in 1996, then left the label. Late last year Rykodisc picked Willis up after she had already completed work on What I Deserve.

Being ping-ponged around Nashville had its effect on her. "The day [may] come when I don't feel that passion anymore," says Willis. "And I know that's possible, only because I got to such a low point. Things picked up, and I do not see that happening, but I know things can get bad."

The battle over her recording career has been one of many defining moments in recent years, including the most important issue of all: self-definition. "I didn't know, but it's all tied into being shy and self-conscious," says Willis of her image, "which just means you're self-absorbed. I stopped thinking like that."

Many of Willis's songs deal with the stuff of country living: heartache, heartache and heartache. Her music, much of which is written with the help of husband Bruce Robison, is straightforward radio country fare. Everything is measured to the last millisecond. The guitar tones are sharp, the drumming unimaginative and the hooks flimsy. Willis's voice is the main attraction. It's countrified, though the singer speaks with no appreciable twang, and strong. Willis shifts octaves by breaking her voice at just the right moments, much unlike Sarah McLachlan, who has made a living out of doing that same trick over and over. Willis is smarter.

And Willis's lyrics always have little bits of relationship advice encoded in them. They're the type of tunes you can imagine many people (read: women) dub and send to their aloof significant others. For that guy you have such a crush on who doesn't know it yet, there's the song "Wrapped": "I didn't have to turn my head whenever you walked in / The only one to let these chills roll down my skin / And my heart beats faster / When I hear your name / And I feel my confidence slippin' away."

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