You just have to feel bad for Kelly Willis. Gorgeous and rambunctious, with a voice featuring both traits in equal measure, Willis spent the early '90s issuing well-appointed country-rock collections that went curiously, damnably unnoticed. 1993's eponymous effort was no different. Produced by Don Was, the album accessed the same smart sound that made Dwight Yoakam a star, but all it did for Willis was get her dropped from MCA. Fortunately, by decade's end, persistence, patience, and a streak of good old stubborn pride had helped land her a new deal with Ryko, and a good bit of the attention she'd always deserved. Willis presaged all of this with one of the slower burning tracks on the 1993 release. "There's so much to take for granted when life is going well," she sings on "I Know Better Now." "When the tides will turn no one can tell." The song's touches of mandolin and warm Hammond organ are typical of the album's sound, which is just as comfortable with the raggedy guitar and hoochie coo of "Take It All Out on You" as it is with the wistful, mature pop of "Get Real" (a song that helped write the sonic blueprint for the later crossover success of Faith Hill.) Willis' vocal style is like granules of sand in a clear mountain stream, or a torn T-shirt in the back row of church -- as pretty as it can be, her voice never quite loses the signature of her youthful turn as a barroom belter. In retrospect, it's nearly impossible to see how Kelly Willis wasn't a success. But she seemed to take it all in stride. Her sighing duet with Kevin Welch on his "That'll Be Me" applies well to the two singers' country outsider status. "You and I were gypsies born under the same sign," Welch croons over a dusty pedal steel guitar. But by the time Willis joins him on the title line, you've stopped feeling bad for Willis' run of fool's gold and started seeing a diamond in the rough.
AllMusic Review by Johnny Loftus
feat: Kevin Welch