Easy Does It


Bumbershoot, Mural Amphitheater, $20

8:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 31

Back in 2000, when country singer Kelly Willis told her record label that she wanted to make her next album a more traditional effort, in a bluegrass vein, nobody cheered. “They were all freaking out,” recalls Willis from her home in Austin, Texas. “I couldn’t have picked a worse choice. It was not something that was selling, or that anybody was interested in. But the record that I’d just made, What I Deserve, was a big, electric record, and I wanted to do something more organic.”

Two years later, the landscape has changed dramatically, thanks to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon and Dolly Parton’s Grammy-winning The Grass Is Blue; last week, This Side, the second album from bluegrass pinups Nickel Creek debuted on the Billboard album charts at No. 18. Willis’ decision was incredibly prescient . . . except she didn’t stick with it—at least, not 100 percent.

Willis’ latest, Easy (Rykodisc), may only feature one genuine bluegrass track— a sparkling rendition of “You Can’t Take It With You,” by Australian tunesmith Paul Kelly—but nobody’s complaining. Her fifth disc is her simplest, strongest effort yet, featuring six originals, plus well-chosen covers courtesy of Austin colleague Marcia Ball, the aforementioned Kelly, the late Kirsty MacColl, and Willis’ husband Bruce Robison, a successful songwriter and recording artist in his own right.

The stripped-down arrangements and laid-back vocal performances of Easy are as far from Willis’ slick early albums for MCA Nashville as Austin is from Washington, D.C., where she began her singing career while still in her teens. Although Willis has remained a well-respected figure in Music City since MCA dropped her in the mid-’90s, she admits “there was a lot about my Nashville experience that I struggled over.” For one thing, MCA promoted her as a glamour girl, via dolled-up features in glossy fashion magazines.

Doing photo shoots was “unnatural and awkward,” she reflects, “but it was also fun to have someone make you up and to look better than you ever have in your life. I remember one time, I had on a studded collar around my neck and this taffeta Christian Dior dress and baby oil all over me. And I was thinking, ‘This really isn’t me.’ But the other part of me was so flattered by [the attention] that I couldn’t say no sometimes.”

These days, Kelly Willis knows what baby oil is really meant for, thanks to her year-and-a-half old son, Deral. But becoming a mom meant that making Easy was anything but. “I kept getting waylaid by this whole motherhood business,” she jokes. Willis, who postponed recording the album twice—in June and October—finally entered the studio in December 2001. “I would set these deadlines . . . and then I wasn’t getting everything together in time for them. Eventually, I went on the road for a weekend and forced myself to finish writing songs.”

Among those is the album’s penultimate song, “Not What I Had in Mind,” a three-quarter-time tune about staying smitten with an ex-lover. Willis says the lyrics are largely autobiographical, but the sentiment is outdated. “I have experienced that before . . . with my husband, actually,” she explains. Before tying the knot in 1996, “we had two big, long breakups in the course of our relationship. We’d be apart for months and months. Then we’d see each other again, and sparks would fly, and, against all of our finer instincts, we’d get back together again.”

Another highlight is Willis’ reading of “Don’t Come the Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim!,” written and originally recorded by Kirsty MacColl. Although MacColl is best known stateside for penning Tracey Ullman’s 1984 Top-10 hit “They Don’t Know,” Willis has been an ardent fan of the British singer since her days in D.C. rockabilly outfit Kelly & the Fireballs. “My boyfriend at the time would make tapes for me, and he made one of all these women, from ’50s rockabilly artists to current roots-rock people.” MacColl’s songs leaped out of that mix, and Willis bought her records. Although she thought about tackling “Sonny Jim!” for years, it wasn’t until after MacColl’s accidental, boating-related death in Mexico (“it was such a shock, really tragic”) two years ago that she decided she was ready.

Willis’ appearance this weekend at Bumbershoot marks not only her first live show to promote Easy, but also one of only a handful of dates she plans to do. Originally, she’d told her label that she didn’t want to tour at all, preferring to stay at home with her son instead. “But then I thought, I can handle doing some four-day weekends.”

Plus, Willis admits, she misses performing if she goes too long without taking the stage. “It’s about the only occasion I ever get dressed and put on makeup,” she says with a laugh. “I’d probably start feeling like an old hag if I didn’t!”