Cowgirl Blues

  • Wouldn't it be great if we all had the wounded wisdom of a fine country thrush? Singers from Patsy Cline to Patty Loveless have lent their vocal courage and frazzled hearts to plaints about love with the wrong kind of guy. They are what has kept Nashville pulsing through decades of shifting fashion. But the town didn't suit Kelly Willis. After a few albums in the early '90s, she split for Austin, Texas. Her new CD, What I Deserve (Rykodisc), puts a sultry Lone Star spin on the country sound. This cowgirl can sing the blues as if she'd grown up inside them.

    In the album's 13 songs (six of which she wrote or co-wrote), Willis has the tone of a roadhouse Everygal. She could be singing her lungs out on the bandstand, swaying dreamily on the dance floor, standing behind the bar with a look of knowing pity. How knowing? Here are the album's first lines: "I don't believe a word you're saying/ And I know the game you're playing/ So it's only just for now/ That I will let you take me down." In the slow-dance Got a Feelin' for Ya, she sings about ice cream ("I'm in the mood for somethin' sticky") as if it were the raunchiest ranch hand in sight. This is music for grownups on the loose, the prowl and the mend.

    Her voice has an easy virtuosity. The womanly throatiness can break, like a child's heart, three or four times in a single syllable. While the lyrics suggest teasing foreplay, the voice is sage, reflective, postcoital. Settling in Texas, Willis found more than her voice; she found a style to build a sturdy career on. What she deserves is what she gives here: the downhome best.