Backroad bodhran blues 

On the record with Willson & McKee

Ken Willson and Kim McKee are Montana’s premier traditional Celtic music export, a husband-and-wife team whose personal relationship has blossomed into an extraordinary, often staggeringly beautiful and sometimes slightly contentious musical one as well, both onstage and over the course of six full-length releases. Having recently sold their Polson home (on the same day they left for tour), the couple now spends most of the year on the road, returning only occasionally to a “half-unpacked apartment with all our stuff in it” provided for them by friends in Helena. It’s like that Journey song “Faithfully,” except they’ve already raised the family and they’re on the road together.

Witty, generous and candid to a fault, McKee can talk a blue streak about any topic put in front of her (but she’s also an excellent listener), and punctuates her answers with an infectious whooping laugh. So call me lazy, but I think you’ll get a better sense of who Willson & McKee are if she does most of the talking.

On the touring life:

“A lot of people think it would be rough on us old farts, but I grew up traveling. My dad was a race-car driver and we traveled constantly. I love different hotels every night. The only thing that’s a little tough at our age is road food—we’ve found we can’t take eating as lightly as we used to because it takes its toll. But really, we both love it. Ken and I are really well suited to each other like that—we both love to just take off and see new places and meet new people and never be in the same place twice. It suits us, but most people are like, you’ve got to be kidding!”

On her musical courtship with partner Ken Willson, whom she met at an audition in Phoenix:

“When we started dating, I kept asking him if he’d start playing this traditional music with me. And he hated it! He said, ‘I’m not playing that, it all sounds the same.’ Of course, I said the same thing about the bluegrass he was playing, so there you go. When we got heavily involved and decided to run away to Montana together, he suddenly found himself in a situation where there weren’t any other players, so suddenly he didn’t have any choice but to play with me. Now he loves it, but in the beginning he only did it because there was nothing else to do.”

On being responsive to fans, having released all-instrumental and all-ballad discs at their specific request:

“We typically only play a place once every three to five years, so there’s a long gap between times when we can connect with the people who come to our concerts. We try really hard to make sure our CDs give them back that moment that caught them and moved them at the concert, because I want them to be moved again. I want it to move them in their life continuously, not just for one night. So I always write their suggestions down. It isn’t like we can afford to do something for every fan who comes along, but if we get more than one of the same suggestion, I really take it to heart.”

On the hazards of overproducing:

“The first three discs we put out, especially, we tried to make indicative of how we sound in concert. One of my own worst pet peeves is to go to a concert and hear something and love it and buy the disc and take it home and find out that it’s nothing like what I just heard. I get really frustrated by that. If someone wants to overproduce a CD, that’s their business, but they better tell me, as a fan, before I buy it that it’s going to sound nothing like what I just heard on stage.”

On (not) badgering sedate audiences into embarrassing group singalongs:

“We never, ever do that. A lot of people just aren’t comfortable singing in public, and I always feel it’s like putting people on the spot. We read our audiences terribly closely. Once in awhile, we’ll get a rowdy enough group that as an encore—only after the night is through—we’ll do a sea chanty and get them to follow along. And that’s not singing, it’s hollering. Nobody has to feel intimidated or embarrassed about their voice. But that’s only once in awhile, when the crowd seems like they’d be really into it.”

On performance as relationship therapy:

“One of the things people enjoy about our live show is that we are who we are. We try to inflect who we are as a couple, and I think people really relate to that. If he hits a wrong note, I give him all kinds of crap onstage. Or if we read the crowd differently and have different opinions about what to play next, we’ll have a mini-argument. It’s not planned, and at those times we definitely come forward with who we are—like, we’re just having a human moment here, folks. In fact, I make a disclosure right up front when we’re playing new places for people who haven’t seen us before. After the second or third song, I’ll say, ‘We do all our marital relationship work right onstage, first of all because it’s cheaper than counseling, and second of all because we have lots of witnesses.’ People just love that—it cracks them up. Then the women kind of side with me when I’m teasing him, and the men side with him when he’s teasing me. We just basically have fun with each other and what we’re doing.”

Willson & McKee are currently touring behind their new all-ballad disc, One Lone Rowan Tree. The duo will appear in concert in Missoula on Saturday, March 20, at the Crystal Theater.

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