Jump to content

Kelly Willis

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kelly Willis
Willis playing guitar at a microphone
Kelly Willis at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, 2007.
Background information
Born (1968-10-02) October 2, 1968 (age 55)
OriginAnnandale, Virginia, United States
GenresHonky Tonk, Country, Americana, Alt. Country
Years active1990–present
Premium Records
(m. 1996; div. 2022)
WebsiteKelly Willis

Kelly Diane Willis[1] (born October 2, 1968) is an American country music singer-songwriter, whose music has been described as alternative country and new traditionalist.

Early life[edit]

Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, United States, Willis was the youngest of three children. While her father was a U.S. Army colonel, Willis's mother had a strong interest in music and sang and acted in amateur musicals. Willis began singing when she was nine as a way to comfort herself after her parents divorced. After the divorce, Willis and her siblings lived with her father and moved around the country to accommodate her father's military job. She spent her middle school years in North Carolina and her high school years in Annandale, Virginia.[2]


Heavily influenced by her mother, who used to sing in local musicals, Kelly became interested in music. One day during a high school visit to the beach, she entered a nearby pay recording booth and sang her own version of Elvis Presley's "Teddy Bear." With the demo in hand, Willis impressed her then boyfriend, drummer Mas Palermo, and joined his rockabilly band at the age of 16. The band took her on as the lead vocalist and soon rechristened the band Kelly Willis & the Fireballs. After Willis's high school graduation, the band decided to move to Austin, Texas, to participate in the vibrant Austin music scene. After a few months in Austin, however, the band broke up. Willis and Palermo, married in 1989, formed a new band called Radio Ranch. In Austin, Willis attracted the notice of several influential Texas singer-songwriters including Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett. Griffith introduced MCA producer Tony Brown to Willis. Brown was very impressed with Willis's vocal abilities and signed her to the MCA label in 1989.

MCA embarked on a big marketing campaign to tout Willis after she recorded her first album on the label, the 1990 album Well Travelled Love. MCA ensured that Willis was interviewed by several national magazines including unusual venues like Vogue and Mademoiselle. Her voice appeared in the 1991 Ridley Scott-produced movie Thelma and Louise, singing "Little Honey" and "I Don't Want to Love You (But I Do)." Willis also had a small part in Tim Robbins’ 1992 film Bob Roberts. Willis appears as the young woman standing in a shallow stream in Dwight Yoakam's video of "A Thousand Miles from Nowhere," as well as a member of Vince Gill's "pickup band" in his Don't Let Our Love Start Slippin' Away video. She was also nominated for Top New Female Vocalist of the year at the 1993 ACM Awards along with Faith Hill and Lari White (Hill wound up winning the award).[3] Despite all the publicity and positive reviews from most reviewers, Well Travelled Love and Willis's subsequent albums for MCA (Bang Bang in 1991 and Kelly Willis in 1993) sold modestly and received very little radio play. During this time, Willis felt uncomfortable with the way she was marketed by MCA. In 1994, MCA released Willis from her contract.

In 1995, Willis collaborated with Jay Farrar on the song "Rex's Blues", which appeared on the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Bothered produced by the Red Hot Organization.

Willis continued to pursue her music career after leaving MCA. In 1996, she recorded an EP for A&M Records entitled Fading Fast. However, her relationship with A&M was short-lived; after working with two major labels, Willis decided to record her next album on her own. Her efforts resulted in the 1999 album What I Deserve, which Willis sold to Rykodisc after finishing the album. What I Deserve received quite a bit of press after the album's release. It was commonly seen as Willis's response to her history with MCA, and was uniformly praised by critics, becoming a hit for Willis.

Willis was also a judge for the 2nd annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists' careers.[4]

In 2003, Willis and Bruce Robison, her husband and fellow country musician, released the record Happy Holidays, a cover album of Christmas songs. Starting in 2005, Willis and Robison appeared in television and radio commercials for the anti-allergy product Claritin.[5]

In Fall 2007, Willis released Translated From Love. It was recorded at Robison's studio, Premium Recording Services, in Austin, TX.[6] and produced by Chuck Prophet, formerly of the band Green On Red. The album is co-written by Willis, Prophet and notable songwriter Jules Shear, and includes a cover version of Iggy Pop's "Success."

In early 2008, Willis announced she would take an indefinite hiatus from live performances due to family obligations. Said Willis in a website announcement, "Being a traveling musician with four kids may not make an extremely compelling reality TV show but it is kicking my butt. I plan to continue making records. And I may do the occasional holiday show/song swap/benefit here and there.... Happy trails...until we meet again." Her winter / spring 2008 scheduled dates continued as planned until the final show May 2, 2008.

Willis has recently begun to tour outside of Texas again; first she headlined the Northern Rockies Folk Festival in Hailey, Idaho on August 7, 2010. Next up, she performed at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival at Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on October 2, 2010. In 2011, Willis toured the United States with her husband Bruce Robison, performing new songs in preparation for an album with Robison. The album, Cheater's Game, was released on February 12, 2013. Willis and Robison began to tour to support the release on February 13, 2013, in New York City.[7] The couple followed up the success of their first album together 14 months later with the release of Our Year.[8]

In 2018, Willis released Back Being Blue, her first solo album in more than a decade. The album was produced by her husband.[9] The following year saw a third collaborative album with Robison, Beautiful Lie.

Personal life[edit]

Willis married high school boyfriend Mas Palermo in 1989, but they divorced in 1991. In 1992, Willis met Austin singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. After several years of dating, Willis and Robison married in 1996.

After a decade focused on her music career, Willis turned to starting a family. She went through in vitro fertilization treatments, and gave birth to son Deral Otis in January 2001. Willis's experience with raising a child led to a different sort of album than the earlier What I Deserve. In 2002, Willis released Easy. The album expresses Willis's contentment with her new life through songs with a relaxed, mellow vibe. After the album's release, Willis became pregnant again and gave birth to twins Abigail Esme and Benjamin James[10] on March 24, 2003[11][12] On January 10, 2006, Kelly welcomed 4th child Joseph Willis Robison; he weighed 8 lbs 14 oz and was 19.75 inches long.[13][14]

On January 21, 2022, Willis and Robison announced their upcoming divorce via their Facebook pages. [15]



Title Album details Peak chart positions
US Country
US Heat
US Indie
Well Travelled Love 64
Bang Bang
  • Release date: April 16, 1991
  • Label: MCA Records
Kelly Willis
  • Release date: 1993
  • Label: MCA Records
Fading Fast (EP)
What I Deserve
  • Release date: February 23, 1999
  • Label: Rykodisc
30 24
One More Time:
The MCA Recordings
  • Release date: August 20, 2002
  • Label: Rykodisc
29 17 19
Happy Holidays
  • Release date: 2003
  • Label: Rykodisc
Translated from Love
  • Release date: June 26, 2007
  • Label: Rykodisc
46 12 37
Cheater's Game
(with Bruce Robison)
  • Release date: February 12, 2013
  • Label: Spunk Records
29 3 31
Our Year
(with Bruce Robison)
  • Release date: May 27, 2014
  • Label: Premium Records
40 13
Back Being Blue 7 30
Beautiful Lie
(with Bruce Robison)
  • Release date: July 11, 2019
  • Label: Next Waltz
"—" denotes releases that did not chart


Year Single Peak chart positions Album
US Country
CAN Country CAN AC
1990 "I Don't Want to Love You (But I Do)" A Well Travelled Love
"River of Love" B
"Looking for Someone Like You" 85
1991 "Baby Take a Piece of My Heart" 51 65 Bang Bang
"The Heart That Love Forgot"[20]
"Settle for Love"[21]
1993 "Whatever Way the Wind Blows" 72 73 Kelly Willis
"Heaven's Just a Sin Away" 63 81
1996 "Fading Fast"[22] Fading Fast
1998 "Take Me Down" What I Deserve
1999 "Not Forgotten You" 80
2002 "If I Left You" Easy
2003 "Don't Come the Cowboy with Me Sonny Jim!"
2007 "Teddy Boys" Translated from Love
"The More That I'm Around You"
"—" denotes releases that did not chart


  • A "I Don't Want to Love You (But I Do)" did not chart on Hot Country Songs, but peaked at No. 3 on Hot Country Radio Breakouts.[23]
  • B "River of Love" did not chart on Hot Country Songs, but peaked at No. 10 on Hot Country Radio Breakouts.[24]

Music videos[edit]

Year Video Director
1990 "I Don't Want to Love You (But I Do)"
"River of Love"[25] Coke Sams
1991 "Baby Take a Piece of My Heart" Mark Lindquist
"The Heart That Love Forgot" Mark Lindquist
1993 "Whatever Way the Wind Blows" Jim Glander
"Heaven's Just a Sin Away" Wayne Miller
1999 "Not Forgotten You" Roger Pistole
2002 "If I Left You" Steven Goldmann
2003 "Don't Come the Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim!" Trey Fanjoy/Traci Goudie
2007 "Teddy Boys"
2014 "Harper Valley PTA" (with Bruce Robison)[26] Bruce Robison/Glenn Seale
2014 "Motor City Man" (with Bruce Robison) Bruce Robison/Glenn Seale

Appears on[edit]

  • 1991: Various Artists – "Thelma & Louise" (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) – vocals on track 6, "Little Honey"
  • 1994: Monte Warden – "Monte Warden" (Watermelon Records) – vocals on track 5, "The Only One"
  • 1995: Aaron NevilleThe Tattooed Heart (A&M Records) vocals on track 11, "For the Good Times"
  • 1998: Various Artists – "Real: The Tom T Hall Project" (Sire Records) – vocals on track 2, "That's How I Got to Memphis"
  • 2005: Various Artists – "A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver (LIVE)" (Compadre) – vocals on track 3, "Ride Me Down Easy"
  • 2012: Martin Zellar – "Roosters Crow" (Label: Owen Lee Recordings) – vocals on track 1, "Took the Poison" and track 3, "Running on Pure Fear"
  • 2012: Mark Collie & His Reckless Companions – "Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary" (Ranch Records) – vocals on tracks 4, 5, 9

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Corcoran, Michael. "Happy holidays, from Kelly and Bruce; A songwriting duo's Christmas: The children will nestle all snug in their beds, while Mom and Dad's records dance in our heads." The Austin American-Statesman November 25, 2003: E1+.
  • House, Silas. "Nothing to Fear." No Depression July–August 2002: 72–81.
  • Manheim, James M. "Kelly Willis." Contemporary Musicians. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale, 1994. 278–280.
  • Patoski, Joe Nick. "What She Deserves." Texas Monthly March 1999: 114–116.
  • Exclaim! – Interview with Kelly WillisExclaim! September 2007


  1. ^ "BABY TAKE A PIECE OF ME". ASCAP. American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Retrieved March 13, 2023.
  2. ^ "Country Singer Looking for a Break". Retrieved July 17, 2015.
  3. ^ LTD, BubbleUp. "winners". Academy of Country Music.
  4. ^ "Independent Music Awards". Independent Music Awards. Archived from the original on July 13, 2011. Retrieved July 14, 2014.
  5. ^ "Kelly Willis, Bruce Robison and Claritin D". Retrieved July 17, 2015.
  6. ^ Doole, Kerry (2007). "Kelly Willis Web Interview". Exclaim!. Archived from the original on January 15, 2013. Retrieved September 18, 2007.
  7. ^ "Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis". Bruce And Kelly Show. Archived from the original on July 14, 2014. Retrieved July 14, 2014.
  8. ^ Kot, George (June 26, 2014). "Robison and Willis collaborate on more than a marriage". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved May 11, 2018.
  9. ^ Betts, Stephen L. (March 29, 2018). "Hear Kelly Willis' Soul-Tinged New Song 'Back Being Blue'". Rolling Stone. Retrieved May 11, 2018.
  10. ^ [1] Archived April 8, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ [2] Archived January 1, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ "Mothers who rock - Salon.com". Dir.salon.com. August 1, 2003. Archived from the original on June 6, 2011. Retrieved July 14, 2014.
  13. ^ [3] Archived September 30, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ "Kelly Willis | Gratis muziek, tourneedata, foto's, video's". Blogs.myspace.com. Archived from the original on July 8, 2012. Retrieved March 29, 2012.
  15. ^ Facebook https://www.facebook.com/100050585345408/posts/461424962220345/?d=n. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  16. ^ "Kelly Willis Chart History (Top Country Albums)". Billboard.
  17. ^ "Kelly Willis Chart History (Heatseekers Albums)". Billboard.
  18. ^ "Kelly Willis Chart History (Independent Albums)". Billboard.
  19. ^ "Kelly Willis – Country Airplay". Billboard. Retrieved January 29, 2018.
  20. ^ "Single Reviews" (PDF). Billboard. July 27, 1991.
  21. ^ "Single Reviews" (PDF). Billboard. November 16, 1991.
  22. ^ "Single Reviews" (PDF). Billboard. May 18, 1996.
  23. ^ "Hot Country Radio Breakouts" (PDF). Billboard. May 12, 1990.
  24. ^ "Hot Country Radio Breakouts" (PDF). Billboard. August 25, 1990.
  25. ^ "CMT : Videos : Kelly Willis : River Of Love". Country Music Television. Retrieved October 14, 2011.
  26. ^ "CMT : Videos : Kelly Willis : Harper Valley P.T.A." Country Music Television. Retrieved February 21, 2014.

External links[edit]