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Kelly Willis

Friday, July 9; Union Station


Since releasing her debut album in 1990, country singer Kelly Willis has been juggled around by the major-label system. She's been fancified and twangified, overproduced and underappreciated. Three of her five records are out of print, the result of being part of the Nashville system that signs five artists in the hopes that one of them will hit, then tosses away the four who don't. She was one of the latter group, and it's happened to her several times — which says nothing of her voice.

Her vocal cords can sound chrome-plated one moment, drenched with sweat the next; she can climb the hill of a note with the grace of a long-distance runner and sprint down the other side unruffled. Where once her voice was tentative, on her recent What I Deserve (released by Rykodisc — fortunately she's extricated herself from the major-label mess), it's relaxed.

She's often compared to Lucinda Williams, and though that may be overstating her achievements — Willis lacks the dynamics, both lyrical and vocal, that Williams possesses — both are in the stratosphere of adventuresome country music.