In the Americana music scene, you can find plenty of artists honoring the outlaws, the legends, and the raconteurs. Not so much the '80s sounds of artists like Kenny Rogers, Barbara Mandrell, and Crystal Gayle, who refined the “countrypolitan” style that began Nashville's flirtation with the crossover charts. But those songs, which were all over the radio when singer Kelly Willis first moved to Texas to start her musical career, served as the springboard for Back Being Blue, her first solo effort in eleven years.
Produced by her husband Bruce Robison, with whom Willis has spent the last decade as an Americana Music Award nominated duo, Back Being Blue is unapologetic in its love for the gentle crooning sounds of artists like Gayle, who Willis name checks in her album's press materials and fully channels on the album's opening title track. “My baby let me go. He called me on the phone. He said I ought to know, he wasn't there alone,” Willis croons with a pain that would make Crystal Gayle proud.
Willis taps another low-key country crooner, Skeeter Davis, for “I'm a Lover (Not a Fighter),” one of four covers on the album. But here she takes a more aggressive approach than Davis, ramping up the song's honky-tonk elements and putting enough edge onto the vocals to leave no doubt that, while she may not be a fighter, the protagonist of Willis' version isn't going down without a fight.
The album's highlight, “Only You,” is also a major sign of growth for Willis as a songwriter. If the snark is an undertone in “I'm a Lover (Not a Fighter),” it's on full display with “Only You.” Playing on the innumerable love songs declaring the things that “only you” can do, Willis tells her lover all of the ways “only you” can ignore, misuse, and gaslight her, ending each verse with a venomous “that's just what lovers do.”
Another standout track is “We'll Do It for Love Next Time.” Written by Americana legend Rodney Crowell, the song about the foolish naivete of young love through middle-aged eyes is a perfect fit for Willis' voice. Crowell's unique delivery has stumped many a cover artist but Willis slips into it like she wrote it.
While it can be hoped that Kelly Willis won't wait another decade to release another solo album, if Back Being Blue is the result, then patience is certainly well rewarded. There's a maturity of voice, of songwriting, and of arrangement here that can only be earned by life experience.