Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music
(b 1 Oct. '68, VA) Gutsy, hard-edged modern rockabilly country singer and songwriter. Joined her first band at 16 and two years later moved to Austin TX where she was befriended by Nanci Griffith, who alerted MCA's Tony Brown, who signed her '89 and kept her blend of rockabilly abandon and hard-country emotion intact on a stunning eponymous debut album. She appeared in film Bob Roberts '91, but country radio didn't embrace her classic country styling; MCA dropped her after two further albums, Well Travelled Love and Bang Bang '91.
Some fans thought she's given up, but she came back with What I Deserve early '99, which become one of the most successful country CDs of the year, on Rykodisc, one of the more enterprising of labels nowadays. Some basic tracks were recorded in San Francisco, but the album was finished and produced in Austin by Dave McNair; with musicians such as guitarists Mark Spencer and Chuck Prophet, songs written or co-written by Willis plus others by Nick Drake, Paul Westerberg and one co-written by Prophet with Dan Penn, the album brought to the country charts the integrity for which Austin music is famous. This was followed by Easy 2002, another superb set, produced by Willis and Gary Paczosa; Spencer and Prophet were back, Lloyd Maines on several tracks, Alison Krauss adding background vocal to Willis's 'Not What I Had In Mind'; Vince Gill and Amy Farris sing background on other tracks, with Farris's lovely viola heard on the title tune. Managed now by Joe Priesnitz, Willis's star is burning brightly.