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Winning Willis 

Kelly Willis
Juanita's, Nov. 15

Kelly Willis obviously plays music for the very best reason: For the love of it. Before a extremely thin (but enthusiastic) Juanita's crowd, Willis and her five-piece band brought their signature Texas country pop to Little Rock last Thursday night. Despite the poor turnout, the band played a fantastic set that highlighted Willis' distinct voice and her unique spin on country music.

When her first record debuted in 1990, Kelly Willis was heralded as a “new-traditionalist” country singer — and certainly she fit that description with her classic singing voice and honky-tonk roots (in fact she got her start fronting a rockabilly band). Then a funny thing happened. The “new traditionalist” started to blend traditional country arrangements with smart pop songs. In the era that gave birth to Faith Hill, Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks, a move to a “country pop” should have secured Willis' place in the Nashville hierarchy.

Instead, Willis has released just three albums in the last 10 years. All have received much critical acclaim but little commercial traction. Still, Willis is a veritable star in the alt-country world.

That wasn't enough to draw a good crowd last week at Juanita's, apparently. It's too bad, because Willis and her band played their hearts out.

Led by a lead guitarist who quite ably channeled Chuck Prophet's signature guitar parts from the recent albums, the band was a clear reminder of why Austin claims to be the “Live Music Capital of the World.” It's a town brimming with world-class musicians who know how to serve a song with their playing. A perfect example of the archetypal hip and talented Austin musician was the brilliantly redheaded Eleanor Whitmore, who has her own solo record coming out next year. Looking like a grown-up Little Orphan Annie, she provided violin, background vocals and mandolin.

When people talk about Kelly Willis, her voice is often first thing they mention. She's got a classic, effortless country twang. Her performance Thursday night of “Too Much to Lose” showed that Willis is as much a soul singer as country crooner. Perhaps reviewers should start dropping Irma Thomas references alongside the ubiquitous Patsy Cline comparisons.

Kelly Willis brought the best of what's made Austin music famous to Little Rock. It's a shame more people didn't hear it.

Jason Weinheimer

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