REVIEW: Kelly Willis’ “Back Being Blue” is Divine Return


Eleven years after the release of her last solo project, alt-country goddess Kelly Willis returns with the divine Back Being Blue (Thirty Tigers).  Fans will heartily welcome Willis using her voice, as silky as her honey-blonde locks, to explore honky-tonk, rockabilly, and R&B stylings of country music.  The album is diverse with six Willis originals as well as contributions from Rodney Crowell (“We’ll Do It For Love Next Time”), Karl Straub (“Afternoon’s Gone Blind”), Ronny Light (“I’m a Lover (Not a Fighter)”), and Randy Weeks and Jeff Rymes (“Don’t Step Away”).

In “Setting the Woods On Fire,” a chapter devoted  to the 90s alt-country movement, The Rough Guide to Country Music expresses the sentiment that, despite being “alternative,” the alt-country movement has often been more traditionalist than mainstream country.  One might call Willis’s new record retro-retro, recalling the throwback sound of that decade. Describing the album, Willis says, “I attempted to make music that could fit in any era but leans on the simplicity of the music that first inspired me. Roots rockabilly country blues, to narrow it down for you! Kind of a Nick Lowe meets Skeeter Davis meets Crystal Gayle. Sounds that were in full blaze when I first moved Austin.”

Willis’ album achieves a beautiful simplicity.  As a writer, I assure you that being simple, direct and to the point is not nearly as easy as it sounds, especially in artistic mediums such as songwriting and composition.  If simplicity were easy, everyone could write Hemingway novels. Pairing straightforward lyrics and a stripped-down sound, and still managing to produce a highly enjoyable, fun product for your audience is laudable.

In pursuit of a vintage sound, Willis and her producer (and husband) Bruce Robison recorded on analogue in their home state of Texas.  Robison also played mandolin on “Fool’s Paradise,” and sang additional group harmonies (“Back Being Blue,” “Fool’s Paradise”). Willis and Robison put together a fantastic cast of both notable guest and session musicians for the album, including Eleanor Whitmore (The Mastersons, Steve Earle & The Dukes) on fiddle, strings, mandolin, and harmony; her sister, Bonnie Whitmore, on additional group harmonies (“Back Being Blue,” “Don’t Step Away”); Mark Spencer (Son Volt) on electric and acoustic guitar; Geoff Queen on pedal and lap steel, electric and acoustic guitar, and dobro; Trevor Nealon on piano, wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, and Hohner clavinet; Joshua Blue on drums and percussion; John Michael on Schoepf bass; and John Ludwick on bass (“Fool’s Paradise,” “I’m a Lover (Not a Fighter)”.
Kelly Willis’s new album, Back Being Blue, is out on CD, vinyl, and steaming on Friday, May 18, and is available for preorder now at  Kelly kicks off an international tour on May 18 at the Bastrop Music Festival in Bastrop, Texas.

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