Kelly Willis is feeling liberated. After decades being a wife, mother, and singer always on the verge of mainstream success, she’s ready for something new.
That pleasant change has arrived as a member of a charmingly loose trio with Brennen Leigh and Melissa Carper. The group performs at the 51st annual Kerrville Folk Festival, taking place May 25-June 11 and featuring a lineup of folk and Americana artists such as Terri Hendrix with Lloyd Maines, the Milk Carton Kids, and the John Doe Folk Trio. Willis, Leigh, and Carper play the first weekend on May 26.
With her big voice and strawberry-blond starlet looks, Willis was touted in the late 1980s as the next female artist on her record label, MCA, to make it big—like a hipper Reba McEntire. But the singer, who paid her dues yelping rockabilly in Austin dives, was never comfortable with that push. “I had social phobia,” she says. “It was all too much.”
When sales of three critically acclaimed albums on MCA did not back up the marketing, she parted ways with the label in 1993. Willis was “washed up at 24,” she says, singing jingles for a local Chevrolet dealership to help pay the bills.
Six years later, though, Willis achieved her greatest album success with What I Deserve, a declaration of independence that sold nearly 120,000 copies on indie label Rykodisc. Unlike her time as a so-called “chick singer” at MCA, Willis handled every aspect of What I Deserve, recording the album with her own money before sending it out to interested labels. “I thought it could be my last album,” she says, “at least for a while.”
She and singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, who married in ’96, were keen to start a family, and Willis was looking forward to fulltime motherhood. Son Deral came first, in 2001, followed by twins Abby and Ben in ’03, then Joe in ’06. Raising four children is one reason she’s made only three albums under her own name in the past two decades. She also managed three duet records with Robison.
Like a Steve and Eydie of Austin, the couple released a Christmas album and had an active holiday schedule, performing their annual holiday shindig at venues around the state. Then, in January 2022, they shocked fans by announcing on social media they were getting divorced. It was a business breakup as well, as Willis had been under the umbrella of Robison’s Next Waltz music production company and studio. The couple are still friendly, and live in the same neighborhood, just north of the University of Texas campus in Austin. But the talk is about family matters, not careers. “Bruce and I don’t work together anymore,” she says, though she still sings songs Robison wrote like “Wrapped,” a big hit for George Strait in 2007.
After having a team around her since she was 19, Willis found herself basically on her own at age 54. What do you do in such a situation? You get with your girls. The charming supertrio, with Leigh on guitar and mandolin and Carper on bass, decided to form an act together after watching each other’s sets on the festival circuit last summer. All three are solo artists of note, but something special happens when they share the spotlight. “We all love to harmonize, and we have so much fun onstage,” Willis says. “Even the s—– gigs are a blast.”
Willis, Leigh, and Carper will spend this summer moseying around the country from Maine to Seattle, with Willis flying home between some shows. After the tour, she’ll hit the road for some solo dates, while Leigh and Carper will forge on with separate headlining sets. Neo-Nashville traditionalist Leigh will be promoting her Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet album, which comes out June 16, while Carper is touring behind Ramblin’ Soul, which NPR compared to vintage Loretta Lynn for its detailed storytelling.
Next year marks 25 since the release of What I Deserve. With three kids away at college and a high school junior at home, Willis knows exactly where the time went. “My goal for this year is to work on getting an anniversary vinyl pressing of What I Deserve,” she says. “I’m still really proud of that time I took the reins of my career.” Then she adds, laughing. “But I am looking for a manager.”
The 51st annual Kerrville Folk Festival runs May 25-June 11 at Quiet Valley Ranch, located just 9 miles south of Kerrville. Tickets can be purchased here.