Kelly Willis Travels Easy Route in Austin

Kelly Willis didn’t use her own house for the video “If I Left You,” and that’s not her brooding, real-life husband either. However, because she filmed the clip in her adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, Willis did wrangle some familiar faces to help her out.

“Most of the people in the video are my friends or friends of the girl Stacy, who gets pulled down by her butt,” Willis tells with a laugh. “I said, ’Stacy, you have cool-looking friends. Call them up!'”

The video sits at No. 2 on CMT Most Wanted Live’s Great Eight, ahead of many of country’s biggest stars, such as Toby Keith , Keith Urban , Faith Hill , Martina McBride , the Dixie Chicks and Lee Ann Womack . It’s quite an achievement for a country-inspired Austin club singer many in Nashville dismissed more than a decade ago.

Catching the eye of producer Tony Brown at the famous South by Southwest music conference in 1989, Willis eventually released three albums on MCA Nashville in the early 1990s, but sales were modest. She signed to A&M Records in 1996, only to have an EP lost in corporate re-shuffling.

“There have been times when it started to feel hard,” she recalls. “I’d be out there and I’d be my own tour manger and I’d be driving a van and checking into a hotel and getting a gig. Just everybody’s job and mine. That’s when you get so tired. Those times were hard. But I’ve been with my husband since 1991 and whenever I would say I’m going to quit, he would say, ’You can’t do that! The music community would miss so much if you did that.'”

Finally, after issuing a Texas-only album, as well as appearances on the Lilith Fair tours, the independent record label Rykodisc signed her. The resulting 1999 album, What I Deserve, sold more than 110,000 copies, due to glowing reviews, a well-received tour and enthusiastic word-of-mouth.

Yet, Willis is quick to admit that she’s “socially awkward,” which made the assertive material on What I Deserve all the more surprising — and satisfying. But she still can’t shake her self-consciousness when singing live.

“It’s very revealing writing your own songs and performing them,” she admits. “I feel vulnerable. That’s hard. Every night, I feel like I get up on stage and make a fool out of myself, and I’m like, ’Why? Why do I do that every night?'”

No one is complaining, at least in Austin, where she lives with husband Bruce Robison (the performing songwriter responsible for Tim McGraw ’s No. 1 hit “Angry All the Time”) and their 22-month old son, Deral Otis. The couple is expecting twins in April.

“Austin has supported me through thick and thin,” she says. “I’ve been able to just be a musician and not have to get other jobs to pay the rent. I could always play a gig here in town and that’s pretty easy. I don’t know a lot of other towns that can support music like that.”

Indeed, during the recent Austin City Limits Music Festival in September, Willis drew thousands of listeners to the stage on a Sunday afternoon, even as fellow Texas favorite Jack Ingram played at the other end of the park. Not bad for a woman who moved to Austin in 1987 as a teenager and started out singing at the tiny barbecue joint across the street from that very same park.

“It’s this slacker town and you can get away for a long time without working too much,” she says about Austin. “People don’t care. They don’t judge you about that. Then at some point you say, ’I’ve really got to do something with my life. This is bad.’ That’s the drawback about living here. You can get too comfortable, and it’s like a hippie town. People are like, ’Whatever.’ Whatever you want to do, that’s cool. When I’m in Nashville, I always feel like, ’Oh my God, I’ve got to put makeup on, do my hair, iron my pants. My pants! Look at this! They are so wrinkly!’ Down here, I would go out without taking a shower for three days and not think twice about it.”

Although her new album Easy recalls a simpler life, Willis found it difficult to manage motherhood and music during her 10 days in the recording studio.

“It was so hard to balance the two,” she remembers. “I would get up in the morning, help my husband get breakfast going and get the kid dressed, and all that stuff, and then go straight to the studio. I’d be at the studio until about 7. Maybe I might get home in time to help give him his bath and go to bed. I just missed him so much and I didn’t see him for those two weeks. That was really hard and stressful for my family life.”

On the flip side, the parental experience has given Willis — who used to cry after giving media interviews during her Nashville run — an opportunity to cast aside her shy tendencies, at least occasionally.

“It’s given me a lot of confidence to be a mother and have this new role in my life,’ she says. “I have to do things that I would never do before I had a kid. Like, go to the playground and talk to people. I have to be this person that can show my son, ’Here’s how to make friends.'”

As it turns out, if she had thrown in the towel, it wouldn’t just be the music community that would miss out. Willis herself might still be that shy girl whose career never quite got off the ground. Now, she cheerfully looks you in the eye when she tells you about the time she sang with Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam.

“The best thing about making music for me is that it’s given me a life,” she says. “It’s this thing that is so special and unique and fun and unusual to do with my life, and I just feel lucky. I feel like finally, through making music, I’ve become self-assured. And happier than I ever thought I’d be. I feel lucky about that, too.”