As solo performers, they’ve had varying degrees of success on stage and in the studio. When the three of them unite to perform, though, there’s some kind of magic. To add to the allure, maybe a catchier name on the marquee than Willis, Leigh & Carper would heighten their presence and draw bigger crowds to venues like the Bluebird Theatre in Denver on 6 August 2023.
Not that it seems to matter to Kelly Willis, Brennen Leigh, and Melissa Carper, the Texas-based singer-songwriters who proved that country western cowgirls want to have fun, too. That’s even if it’s only before about 100 folks (according to a Bluebird employee) in a 500-person capacity room where the balcony was closed off.
For now, let’s call them the Unsung Hero Trio. After the antics of bad boys like Jason Aldean and Morgan Wallen, country needs to be cool again. The Western swing displayed on this opener of Western swing states by Willis, Leigh, and Carper should fill the bill. In 90 entertaining minutes while they took turns taking the lead with mostly their own original songs — and an encore cover of John Prine’s “I Have Met My Love Today” — the tuned-in troika also provided wisdom and wit, surprise revelations, and a little tenderness.
The acoustic set had the earmarks of a late-night confessional setting off a warm glow around the campfire. It seems like a natural for that other Bluebird in Nashville, where masterful songwriters tell tales about their music during intimate in-the-round sessions alongside 90 customers who pay to listen intently. With Willis and Leigh manning acoustic guitars and Carper thumping an upright bass taller than she is at a heart-racing pace, they stood on their feet (their boots are made for talkin’) the entire time, not even needing a brief respite or extended intermission to break up the action. No chairs, fancy backdrops, or video screens needed. Just heartfelt songs, pretty harmonies, amusing stories, spiffy Western attire, and a whole lotta laughs.
Of course, that was before their “rental van was hit by a drunk driver after our show in Salt Lake [City] on Tuesday [8 August] night”, according to an Instagram post by Leigh, who was intending to celebrate her birthday. “We have some injuries but are able to continue our run. We’ve been advised not to give too many details, but we got the other driver’s license plate number as he fled the scene of the accident, and law enforcement took him into custody. We are thankful to be alive, and we ask for your patience and prayers as we recover.”
There was no such drama before or after this show two peaceful nights earlier in Denver. Stepping up to the mic in the middle, flanked by Leigh on her right and Carper on her left, Willis softly said, “We drew straws to see who goes first, and I got the short one.”
Other than a set-list mix-up involving Willis and Leigh about a third of the way through the show, the evening went as silky-smoothly as their honeydew voices. Eighteen songs were divided evenly among the three featured singers before they combined to deliver a come-to-Jesus moment with the Kendalls’ gospel-glorious 1977 hit “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away”.
So, in the spirit of their harmonious get-together, here’s a one-by-one breakdown of the triumphant triumvirate’s Bluebird performance highlighting some of their finest moments.
Why you should know her: The esteemed senior member of the trio, Willis has recorded seven solo studio albums but hasn’t released one in five years. That’s better than the 11-year gap between 2018’s Back Being Blue and 2007’s Translated From Love for the longtime Austin resident. But raising a family of four kids became a priority for the then-wife and touring partner of Bruce Robison, who toured and collaborated with her on numerous projects during that time, including the 2014 LP Our Year. But by 2022, their partnership was sadly over when a joint announcement was made in January that the power couple were divorcing.
Now that she’s single to mingle again, Willis, whose show-opening “Fool’s Paradise” entails the dangers of flirting, still talks softly but carries a pretty, lilting soprano. It’s one almost on the verge of a yodel but holds a note that soars on flashy alternative-country numbers or soothes on tear-welling ballads.
With a career dating back to the MCA debut of Well Traveled Love in 1990, the Oklahoma-born beauty was the country-pop forerunner of now-Music City icons Faith Hill and Shania Twain. In our 2018 PopMatters interview (following a three-way 2014 Huffington Post chat that included Robison), Willis admitted she never felt comfortable in the role of country “It Girl”. During this show, though, she claimed, “I got kicked out of Nashville” before finding “a whole new life” with the release of What I Deserve in 1999, three years after marrying Robison.
“I do remember that there weren’t any young women or girls making music at the time,” Willis said in 2018 of that early start, finally gaining proper respect and dandy reviews with that fourth studio album. “It was weird. It was a rarity. … And then, of course, Faith Hill came in, and other people came in and really blew that whole thing all wide open. … I would never think that I actually forged some path for anybody or anything. (laughs) … I just did some crazy path through there that I don’t know if anybody would want to follow.”
Best song: From Back Being Blue, one of her few albums not out of print (and available in vinyl at the merch table), Willis sang “What the Heart Doesn’t Know”, saying, “I was trying hard to hit this very specific little niche of music. … I was going for the 1950s country-girl folk duo. … See if you think that’s what it sounds like.” Judging by the audience’s reaction, she achieved that goal.
Best lines: When Leigh admitted that a lyric (“The heart wants to go where the heart wants to go”) in “Billy & Beau”, the song she co-wrote with Carper a few years ago, sounded familiar to their other stage partner’s “The heart doesn’t know what the heart doesn’t know” from the just-performed song, Willis calmly remarked, tongue in cheek, “There is some litigation. [Touring together could be awkward] until we get this paperwork signed. It could all go away!”
Best vignette: After Carper’s announcement later that night about selling their wares, Leigh kiddingly called CDs “the wave of the future,” then asked, “Kelly, did you bring your cassette?” When a spectator mentioned 1991’s Bang Bang, Willis replied, “There’s only one record left that we know of. It’s going to the highest bidder.” (I have proof there’s more than one copy left, as mine remains in a collection of cassettes from that era, purchased around the time I first saw her perform at the barn-sized Grizzly Rose nightclub in Denver.)
The subject of that second album of Willis’ career took Leigh in another stream-of-consciousness direction, though. “There’s four pictures of her on the cover,” she said. “She has the most glorious perm.” Willis’ response drew hearty laughs from the crowd: “It is beautiful. It’s big, and it’s beautiful. It was Nashville. You had to have big hair. What were we gonna do? It’s what nature gave me.”
When Carper admitted she also wore a perm in 1991, Leigh sounded astounded. “Wait a second! This blows a hole in the time-space continuum. Y’all both had a perm in 1991! You guys, the two of you, simultaneously, without … that is just an incredible coincidence.”
Carper ended the nearly five-minute discussion with this revelation, pausing for effect, much to the guffawing crowd’s delight: “Just a year or two before that perm, I had … a mullet. I had a mullet for four or five years. Never did look good on me. My girlfriend now, when she looks back at those pictures, said I looked like an old lady.”
Why you should know her: Released on 16 June via Signature Sounds, Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet, Leigh’s eighth full-length solo studio album, is a throwback to what she calls “the real Nashville … the idyllic Golden Age.” Quoted in her biography, the late Guy Clark succinctly summed up the Midwest native’s instrumental prowess by saying, “Brennen Leigh plays guitar like a motherfucker.” David Olney believed that while her songwriting was “tender, violent, sentimental, foolish and wise, she is always Brennen”. Leigh, who finally debuted at the Grand Ole Opry on 24 June, was “shocked” to hear that her “country” record reached No. 6 on the Americana album chart last week, adding (pun intended), “I’ve never been that high before.”
Making her solo album debut with Lonesome, Wild and Blue in 2002, Leigh has co-written with the likes of Rodney Crowell, Charley Crockett, and Lee Ann Womack. She’s also contributed on guitar, mandolin, or harmony vocals for albums by artists such as Jim Lauderdale and Jesse Dayton while featuring Asleep at the Wheel in 2022 on her Obsessed With the West release.
Growing up along the Minnesota-South Dakota border (“a very popular vacation destination,” she wryly told the Bluebird crowd), Leigh then “moved to Texas and lost my accent, and then years later, wished I still had it”.
Impressed after first seeing her showcase performance at the Station Inn with Noel McKay during 2014’s AmericanaFest in Nashville, the solid set last week only enhanced my feelings, particularly with several of her terrific guitar runs on each member’s tunes.
That grounded experience and authentic delivery began while performing at the age of 14 in a bar (“a good, respectable Irish place”) her mom and dad ran.
“Never had done anything else,” she revealed to the Denver crowd while introducing the old-timey title track to I Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet. “But there’s a little bit of shame associated with [bars] for some people. And I don’t think there should be. It’s our culture. And it’s the culture of country music. … There’s just a certain type of establishment where that still, you know, it’s still alive and well. So this song is for you honky-tonkers.”
Best song: Though she only played one other track from the June release, Leigh’s ability to mix it up was a pleasant surprise. Her ballad “Outside the Jurisdiction of Man” from Prairie Love Letter was not only highlighted by sweeping harmonies and nostalgic feelings, but it also came with an engaging backstory. “I’m really into this book called My Antonia,” Leigh disclosed. “It’s an American classic. It changed the way I write songs. Don’t forget: Different art forms can influence each other, you know. Anyway, it’s this book about grief and being homesick. You should read it. This is not a paid endorsement. The author [Willa Cather] is long dead. But it takes place in Nebraska, out in the really beautiful sand hills. And it inspired this song.”
Best lines: For her Western swing album featuring Asleep at the Wheel, Leigh and Katie Shore co-wrote a song about “ghosting”, and they both sang on the track. “If you’ve ever been ghosted before, [it’s] a terrible thing to do to somebody,” Leigh explained to the crowd. “If you don’t know what it is, you basically leave the party without saying goodbye. So you just let the other person figure out that you’re no longer in the relationship. It’s a cruel act. But if you’re gonna do it, we decided the best way to do it is by faking your own death.”
The foot-stomping, ass-kicking number that features all three singers and vibrant playing by Leigh on guitar and Carper on bass is called “Tell Him I’m Dead”.
Best vignette: Since subgenres of country music became such a hot topic on this night (read Carper’s summary below), Leigh offered her take to the uninformed in the crowd about dieselbilly. Saying, “Country music is so big, if you lived 100 years, [you could] listen to a new song every hour.” Correctly crediting Bill Kirchen with naming the subgenre (with one fan’s loud whoop confirming that), she defined dieselbilly as “country music songs explicitly and exclusively about long-haul trucking in this country.”
When Leigh invited Mallory Eagle to her house for their first co-write, her friend suggested doing a song “about my neighbor”, who makes a living driving trucks. Regarding the trucker, Leigh said, “I’ve never met her, but she’s like this petite, sweet, manicured kind of dainty Southern lady. But she drives 18-wheelers. There’s something about that that just turned my crank.”
The little lady has a CB radio handle that became the title of the song — “Carole with an E”, the other tune from the new album Leigh performed that night. In the recently released music video, Leigh plays a truck-stop waitress (“actually my true calling,” she joked), and Eagle plays Carole … with an E.
Why you should know her: While Willis and Leigh may be more familiar to mainstream roots fans, that doesn’t mean Carper is living in the shadows (though her bandmates this night inadvertently forgot to officially introduce her until 40 minutes into the set had elapsed). In fact, she might be a hidden gem turning into a shining diamond among these polished stars. Her third and most recent solo studio LP — 2022’s Ramblin’ Soul — was ranked No. 4 among PopMatters’ 15 best country albums last year.
Originally from North Platte, Nebraska, she was happy to announce that her junior high and high school orchestra teacher was in the audience this night after surprising his star student in Fort Collins, north of Denver, a few months ago. “It’s great that we reconnected after all these years,” said Carper, who roamed the near-empty hall greeting a few folks shortly after the doors opened at 7:00 pm.
Attending the University of Nebraska on a music scholarship but dropping out after two years, she went beyond her parents’ classic country record collection to learn about legends from jazz (Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday), along with blues, folk, and gospel (Lead Belly, Odetta).
With ramblin’ on her mind after settling temporarily in Eureka, Springs, Arkansas, Carper roamed the countryside in a 1980 Dodge Maxi Van, busking in music-friendly towns like New Orleans and Austin, the Texas capital where she still lives after moving there in 2009.
Long before making her Grand Ole Opry debut on July 12, she met and worked as a waitress in Austin’s Somnio’s Café with Leigh, who contributed to three albums with The Carper Family band her friend founded and solo records like Ramblin’ Soul and 2015’s Arkansas Bound. Carper also helped start the Maybelles, formed roots duo Buffalo Gals with partner and fiddler Rebecca Patek, and spent time in bands like Arkansas quartet Sad Daddy (also with Patek) and Mountain Sprout, with lead vocalist and writer Grayson VanSickle.
With a twang that speaks volumes and sounds purely country, Carper practically had her own cheering section in the Denver audience, loudly applauding songs with her lead vocals and laughing in all the appropriate places.
Best song: Expect fans outside the Lone Star State to admire and appreciate this rambunctious country western hoedown ditty from Ramblin’ Soul. Carper’s move from Arkansas to Texas was precipitated by her departure from Mountain Sprout, the group that played bluegrass and another subgenre of country she called pornobilly. Asked by Leigh to explain the term and making sure the explanation was OK for a “mixed crowd,” Carper said, “I needed to get away from that. Those were some fun times, but I maybe did that for too long. … Grayson, he wrote some dirty songs. He also wrote songs that were not dirty. … Everything he wrote was good, but he would try to stop doing the dirty songs, and everybody would scream for them every night. … Anyway, you’ll be able to tell from this song I was very excited to be moving down there. I say Texas 59 times.” Even in Colorado, “Texas, Texas, Texas” was a smash hit.
Best lines: Mentioning Ramblin’ Soul (which Leigh called “a mighty fine album”), Carper said, “I mailed some copies to my niece who lives here. So that’s for her and her friends to receive those — wanting, hoping to unload some of those on our tour so I don’t have to mail them back. Now that would be sad, wouldn’t it?”
Best vignette: Introducing “My Old Chevy Van” from 2021’s Daddy’s Country Gold, Carper divulged how sad she was when it came down to selling the vehicle she inherited from her family that helped her make the move to Texas. “I actually called her Barbie because it was painted purple,” she said. “The air conditioning didn’t work, and the windows wouldn’t roll down, so after a couple of years of doing that in Texas, it seemed like it was time to sell Barbie. But turns out I should’ve waited ’cause Barbie could be worth a lot of money now.”
Well, sure, practically everyone else is living in Barbie’s Dreamworld this summer because of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. But inside this Musicland dollhouse, Willis, Leigh, and Carper are the real dream team this season.
Bluebird Theatre, Denver, 6 August 2023
1. “Fool’s Paradise”
2. “Don’t You Know I’m From Here”
3. “Would You Like to Get Some Goats?”
4. “If I Left You”
5. “I Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet”
6. “Makin’ Memories”
7. “What the Heart Doesn’t Know”
8. “Billy & Beau”
9. “My Old Chevy Van”
11. “Outside the Jurisdiction of Man”
12. “Texas, Texas, Texas”
13. “What I Deserve”
14. “Carole With an E”
15. “That’s My Only Regret”
16. “Back in Blue”
17. “Tell Him I’m Dead”
18. “Boxers on Backwards”
19. “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” (The Kendalls cover)
“I Have Met My Love Today” (John Prine cover)