Kelly Willis: Little Singer With A Big Voice

August 04, 1991|By Bob Allen

Country-rocker Kelly Willis knows listeners are startled by her singing voice when they first hear it.

Ever since the diminutive blonde began performing publicly at age 16, in a band called Kelly & the Fireballs, the Annandale, Va., native has been hearing comments like, "I can't believe such a great big voice is coming out of such a little girl!"

And that big voice will boom this Saturday at the Fair Hill Country/Bluegrass Music Festival in Cecil County. Ms. Willis and her band, Radio Ranch, are part of a daylong lineup that includes the Judds, Ricky Van Shelton, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Shelby Lynne, the Dillards and Russ Barenberg/Jerry Douglas/Edgar Meyer. The event is sold out.

"I'm such a soft-spoken person offstage that when I sang, they sometimes wouldn't expect it from me. It would make them look twice," shrugs Ms. Willis, whose most recent LP, "Bang Bang," was recently released to considerable critical acclaim.

"I don't know if they looked twice because they thought I sounded great, or what," she adds. "But I just had a bigger voice than anyone ever imagined. Or louder or something. And I liked that right away, felt good about it. It was a good feeling to be looked at twice, no matter what the reason was."

Since the 1990 release of "Well Traveled Love," her debut LP on MCA, a lot of people have been looking -- and listening -- twice to Ms. Willis. Her vocals are daunting, to say the least: a Pandora's box of passion and emotion. Raw, gutsy, sensual, urgent, even furious at times, hers is the kind of voice that not only threatens to shatter the champagne glass, but the control room window as well.

"Kelly Willis sings sweetly, powerfully, and wildly, like an angel with hell-scorched wings," wrote veteran music writer Nick Tosches in Texas Monthly. "A rich, libidinal delivery," added Rob Tannenbaum of Rolling Stone. ". . . closer than most to Patsy Cline's true spirit."

Praise for "Well Traveled Love" also came from sources as far afield as the New York Times ("classic country singing"), the Village Voice ("a walloping voice") and People ("a hearty, kinetic style").

All in all, such a wall of sound is a bit of a surprise, coming as it does from a reserved, wallflowerishly shy young woman who grew up in a staid military family in the shadow of the Pentagon.

"My family, being from the military, is real conservative," Ms. Willis admits with a soft chuckle. "When I told them I was going to be a musician they just about died!"

She recalls being just another all-American kid from D.C.'s Northern Virginia suburbs when she met Mas Palermo, a local boy and an aspiring country-rock musician who soon became Ms. Willis' boyfriend; today he is her husband as well as the drummer and guiding force in her band, Radio Ranch.

Ms. Willis' musical awakening came when she tried out as lead singer for Mr. Palermo's band. She passed the audition and the band was renamed Kelly & the Fireballs.

"We were like a garage, thrashy, rockabilly band," she remembers. "And singing with the Fireballs I discovered all kinds of music that I wasn't aware of before. We would play Wanda Jackson songs, Gene Vincent, Patsy Cline -- not the pretty Patsy Cline songs, but the rockin' Patsy Cline songs."

The Fireballs played D.C. area clubs like the Twist & Shout in Bethesda and even won a nomination as "best new band" in the Washington area's annual "Whammy" music awards competition. "It was the same year that Mary-Chapin Carpenter [another "graduate" of the D.C., club scene] won five awards," Ms. Willis recalls.

Ultimately, though, the Fireballs ran into the same sort of obstacles confronting any aspiring local band. Despite the abundance of talent, the region has never been very closely watched by the national music industry. What's more, there were relatively few places for a talented but unestablished band dedicated to playing original material to cut its


Thus, in late 1987, the Fireballs set off for Austin, Texas, one of the world capitals of alternative music and the kind of town where the band felt its thrashy, rootsy, rockabillyish sound might conceivably find a niche.

"I was real excited, because I was moving out of the house for the first time," she recalls. "My family didn't want me to go, but I finally made a deal with them, where they would pay my rent in Austin if I went to college." She laughs slyly: "So I took two courses at a community college."

But after just six months or so of playing the Austin clubs the Fireballs disbanded. ("Some of us wanted to take the music in a little different direction," Ms. Willis explained. "I wanted to take it more country; some of the others wanted more rock and roll.") Mr. Palermo concentrated on his songwriting and Ms. Willis used the free time to take guitar lessons.

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