You don’t have to be a deconstructionist cowboy like myself to have noticed that, in recent years, country music has gotten pretty. A whole new generation of girl crooners has cropped up—I’m thinking here of Dixie Chicks, SheDaisy, Faith Hill—largely on merit of the fact that even country has become video-driven, and that they’re all stunning women to look at. Albeit, in an eerily similar, spider-lashed, hay-haired way. Well, if that’s what you’re into, you may not remember what got us here in the first place. So allow me to direct your attention to Kelly Willis.
For the past ten years or so, Willis has marshalled through what was once the unknown territory of girl country, and conquered every square inch of it the old-fashioned way. She writes most of her own songs. She plays the guitar, and does it well. She refers to the sex act in her lyrics as “taking me down.” And, for the record, she’s never made a big deal of the fact that she’s one of the most beautiful women in show business.
Now, having become surrounded with Barbie-doll songstresses, Willis has decided to take up the rear guard with her latest release, What I Deserve. Parcelled out over 13 songs, Willis’ fourth album dusts out much of her earlier work—the work that she, in fact, pioneered—like roadhouse rock and honky-tonk, and returns to a tighter, slower, more performance-driven sort of country. In each of her newest tracks, the lines are lighter, the hooks softer, the arrangements simpler. It is, for lack of a better word, traditional. Bits like “Not Long for This World” are devastatingly spare. Love songs like “Cradle of Love” splinter slowly in your ear. There are moments, in fact, that are so jaw-droppingly heartfelt that you have to wonder if Kelly Willis bears more honor to the likes of Sarah Vaughn and Billy Holiday than to Emmy Lou Harris and Tammy Wynette. Country, after all, is just blues for white people.
And sustaining you throughout all this is Willis’ singular voice. She sings with the rhythm of barbed wire. Her voice feels like fish hooks dipped in honey. If you can make it through this album without feeling a rumble someplace where you thought your stomach was, you, sir, have a heart of clay. In a field now crowded with anatomically correct copies, Kelly Willis remains the Genuine Article.