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For Kelly Willis, absence proves the proverb right

By Joel Bernstein, March 1999

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Some other songs come from seemingly odd sources for a country record, such as the late British folkie Nick Drake and The Replacements' Paul Westerberg.

"I never consider the category of the songs I want to cover," Willis explains. "I just like songs that say something and that I find lyrically provocative...Most of them I hear as country songs. 'They're Blind' (Westerberg's) didn't sound like a country song, but I thought it would be interesting to do it that way. But they're all songs I had a personal connection with."

Commenting on how the song selection might seem quite different from her earlier albums, Willis says, "I've always listened to all different kinds of music. I'm different than I was 10 years ago, but everybody is. Ten years ago, I was in a band, and it was a five-way decision about what songs to do."

As far as the eternal question as to where she fits in the marketplace, Willis is philosophical. "I consider myself a country artist. I know there are restrictions in what's considered country and played on the radio. My appeal might lie in areas outside of country music. I love country music, and I'm proud to be considered a part of it." She adds rhetorically, "What can I do if I can't get played on radio?"

One thing, of course, is to tour. Willis taking her band on the road around the U.S. Later this spring, she'll do her first major European tour. Hubby Robison will be there as opening act.

Willis' band will have more new names than new faces. Her longtime fiddler Amy Tiven got divorced and now goes by Amy Farris. Drummer Rafael Bernardo played on the album as Rafael Gayol, then switched to using his middle name as last name because it's easier to pronounce.

The band is rounded out by a couple of veterans. Bass player Mark Andes was a member of Sixties' rock band Spirit, among many others. Guitarist Jerry Holmes has been with Joe Ely among many.

Willis' biggest mass exposure to date might have come via a movie, but she has no plans to repeat it. She had a fairly substantial role in Tim Robbins' 1992 film "Bob Roberts."

Willis played a right-wing folk singer, and even a lot of her fans didn't realize it was her until the final credits rolled. "Luckily I didn't have to do anything but sing in that movie. I had one line (to speak), and I had to look surprised once. I'm not the best actress in the world."

Asked how she got the part, Willis replies "Tim Robbins called me up. He'd read an article with my picture, and he called and asked me if I played guitar. I exaggerated a little."

"Movies are not where my passion lies, and I wouldn't try to get a serious career going."

Her passion obviously does lie in music. "Americana is a (format) I fit in. It's not a huge market. I know I have country music fans, and fans from outside that world. People come out, and they don't really care what umbrella you're under. I don't intend on appealing to the masses. There are people interested in music who seek it out in all different formats. Through them I can have a career."

And who knows, maybe next year at this time she'll be holding a Grammy. Just like Lucinda.

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