The current crop of those most successful female singers who fall into the genre slice known as alt-country excel because they all bring something beyond generic good pipes to the proceedings. Where many hitmakers are interchangeable hotties with pleasant voices, these women bring character to their music, something that means being marginalized in the marketplace and earning kudos on the fringes.
Neko Case is confrontational, pushing songs with her powerful voice, conveying a ballsiness through her delivery. Shelby Lynne is sassy, adding a world-weariness that Case can’t yet muster, while Lynne’s little sister, Allison Moorer refines that sass, much as the little sister of a hellion is wont to do.
And Kelly Willis? Her voice is the equal of the others, but she comes at her music from a different tack. She’s the quiet one, the one who has been hurt, is a little tentative. She uses her voice like a precise instrument. Where the others — Case and Lynne, in particular — get by on brute force, Willis is all about the surgical strike, a quaver here, a long sigh there, and you’re hooked. It was a voice seemingly primed for mainstream success. While the others have been perhaps a bit too much to be roped by Nashville’s bland lasso, Willis was just sweet enough, just submissive enough, to succeed.
It didn’t happen. When Willis gave Nashville a shot; the establishment shot back. She released three solid albums on MCA in the 1990s, but none caught on like one would expect. Or rather, like one would expect if he didn’t look blow the surface. Willis was a singer not quite willing to fit the mold, a peg that if not completely squared off, certainly one with a less-than-round form that didn’t make for easy insertion in the mainstream’s slots.
The albums were pleasant, transcendent at times, but didn’t yield hits to match the rave reviews. Her maverick tendencies — which included the inspired choice of eclectic covers by the likes of Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, Jim Lauderdale, Paul Kelly and Marshall Crenshaw — ran counter to the prevailing trends in Nashville. As a result, she was consigned to the sidelines.
But with the value of hindsight, it’s clear that’s where Willis will flourish. She made a smooth transition thanks to some leading alt-country lights. First came a duet with Son Volt’s Jay Farrar on the Townes Van Zant track “Buckskin Stallion Blues” on the CD Red, Hot and Bothered, then the Fading Fast EP for A&M Records with three-quarters of the Jayhawks in tow. While her delivery and the song structures were similar to those found on the MCA discs, they lacked the studio sheen that marred those releases. Like a woman shedding an unneeded layer of makeup to reveal the natural beauty within (a fitting metaphor in more ways than one for the fetching Willis), the singer seemed freer in the new setting, better able to play to her strengths.
Her two albums since have been marvelous collections of traditional country, the first with a pop-soul sheen, the most recent tinged with homey bluegrass tones. Her self-confidence seemingly bolstered by those stop-gap efforts, Willis seemed like a new artist on 1999’s What I Deserve. The disc sounded like a not-so-thinly veiled reference to her mistreatment at the hands of Nashville and a lush statement of purpose. The originals, spun by her pen and that of husband Bruce Robison, were ready-made classics, and her choice of covers — including tunes from Paul Westerberg and Nick Drake — was impeccable as usual.
The new Easy shows another subtle shift, shedding the country-soul of its predecessor in favor of a traditional country-bluegrass template. The result plays like her albums on MCA should have, a classic sound pleasantly blanketing thoroughly modern sentiments. Like the title of What I Deserve, the new disc’s title could be seen as another jab at Nashville: See how easy this is when you do it right?
Willis is joined, as usual, by a stellar supporting cast. In addition to hubby Robison, she is aided by Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Chuck Prophet, Mark Spencer, Vince Gill, Lloyd Maines and Ian McLagan. But where the production on What I Deserve bathed each tune in atmosphere and mood, Easy is built largely on crisply played acoustic instruments. Things are so simple here, the stars, while not wasted, don’t add much that is identifiable to the mix. The feel comes through Willis’s vocals. She veers more closely to the sentiments of her sisters in song, with tracks like Marcia Ball’s “Find Another Fool” or Robison’s “What Did You Think?” giving her the chance to add some grit to her delivery, to take the welcome mat off her back. She does it well, turning things up just a notch. You can believe this pushover sweetheart has finally had enough.
The disc closes on an oddly incongruous tune. Musically, “Reason to Believe” fits. But lyrically, Willis seems to snap back to reality. The women in those previous songs were just characters. On this tune, we hear the real Willis, a new mother singing a lullaby to her son. It’s as if, after an album of defiance and determination, Willis needed to end on a happy note. As solid as this album is, she can do pretty much what she wants. Easy is another stellar album, beautifully played and more beautifully sung from the first note to the last. And whatever her next salvo, even if it’s a hybrid rehash of these last two discs called I Still Deserve It This Easy, it’ll be worth a listen.