The Digital Journalist
Selected photos from Michael O'Brien's The Face of Texas.
© Michael O'Brien

Kelly Willis/AUSTIN - Kelly Willis was new to Austin when she was "discovered" by singer Nanci Griffith. Willis was singing at Austin's Continental Club in 1990 when Griffith wandered in and caught the end of her set. Griffith was so impressed by the plaintive, sensual, country voice of the pretty young singer that she headed for the phone and dialed MCA producer Tony Brown. A few months later, a record deal was struck, and Willis was on her way with her debut album, Well Traveled Love.

She's had lots of ups and downs since then--including a disappointing foray into the highly commercial Nashville music scene, and a parting of the ways with MCA--but at 32 she got back on track with the CD What I Deserve, released on the independent label Rykodisc to glowing reviews. In the last couple of years, she's followed that up with Easy, her latest CD, which she co-produced.

Willis is not a Texan by birth. She was born in Lawton, OK, the youngest of three children, and grew up in North Carolina and Virginia. (Her particular twang is resonant of these formative years.) She got her start in high school. One day at a beach arcade, she slipped into a coin-operated recording booth and sang Elvis Presley's "Teddy Bear." She took the demo and parlayed it into a spot in her boyfriend's rockabilly band. Kelly and the Fireballs became a moderate success around the DC area in the late 80s before they moved on to Austin.

Willis' reputation has been enhanced by some brushes with celebrity. She appeared in the film Bob Roberts, directed by and starring Tim Robbins. She was selected as one of People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People. Her songs were featured in the films Thelma & Louise and Boys. She posed for some glossy magazine photo spreads -- Vogue among them. And she performed at a mansion gala honoring President Clinton at $1,000 a plate.

But the singer, who's known among the local media as "the voice of Austin," seems determined, now, to concentrate on the basics: writing good songs, performing with musicians she admires, and maintaining artistic control of her career. If blockbuster success eludes the shy, ethereal artist, so be it.

"Since I was raised an Army brat, Texas was the first connection I had to any place," says Willis, who lives with husband Bruce Robison, a respected singer-songwriter, and their son, Deral. "I feel lucky to be connected to the landscape of Texas - the earth - the dirt and rocks. It makes me feel whole, complete and peaceful."