By Richard Skanse
When Kelly Willis and the Fireballs landed in Austin back in December of ’87, the 19-year-old rockabilly filly had no idea that she was little more than a year away from signing her first label deal. The Fireballs, ex-pats of the Washington, D.C.-area roots rock scene (such as it was), would burn out and disband long before then, but Willis and her drummer/songwriting boyfriend Mas Palermo weren’t long in assembling a new band of red-hot players and establishing themselves as local favorites in their newly adopted hometown. Austin was not yet the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World,” but it was already a boomtown for original roots, country and rock ’n’ roll acts, and Radio Ranch fit right in with the best of ’em. When producer/MCA Nashville honcho Tony Brown playfully asked them “Y’all ready to show your asses?” en route to the studio to record 1990’s Well Travelled Love, the answer — whether they knew it or even said so themselves — was an unqualified yes.
Radio Ranch didn’t end up staying together for very long after that record, which was released in 1990 as Willis’ solo debut. Neither did Willis and Mas, whose 1989 marriage wouldn’t make it through the ’90s. But 25 year later, Well Travelled Love still holds up and still holds a special place in Willis’ heart, which is why she reached out to each of her old bandmates — Mas, bassist Brad Fordham, lead guitarist David Murray and steel player Mike Hardwick — late last year and asked them if they’d be game for a little Silver Anniversary celebration. Happily, they all enthusiastically agreed, so for seven dates at the end of this month, Kelly Willis and Radio Ranch will ride again: Jan. 20 at the Cactus Cafe in Austin; Jan. 22 at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston; Jan. 23 at Gruene Hall in Gruene, Texas; Jan. 27 at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, Md.; Jan. 28 at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va.; Jan. 30 at the Continental Club in Austin; and Jan. 31 at Strange Brew in Austin. The Jan. 23 date at the historic Gruene Hall will feature a bonus treat, as Willis and Radio Ranch will be sharing the bill with fellow early ’90s Austin twangers the Wagoneers, whose frontman Monte Warden wrote two songs on Well Travelled Love: “Don’t Be Afraid” and (with Emory Gordy Jr.) “One More Time.”
For fans who saw them the first time around a quarter century ago (and yes, Willis can’t help but cringe a little when she thinks of it like that), the short tour will be a nostalgic blast from the past. And for Willis fans who discovered the singer through her later solo albums or perhaps know her best from her duo recordings and annual Christmas shows with Bruce Robison (her “new” husband of 20 years), the Radio Ranch reunion shows will offer a chance to experience a taste of the Austin music scene from its pre-tech-boom halcyon days — not to mention a rare opportunity to hear Willis sing a bunch of songs that likely haven’t graced her setlist since the George H. W. Bush administration.
We caught up with Willis two weeks before the first reunion gig to hear her thoughts on rounding up Radio Ranch, recording and revisiting Well Travelled Love, and what it feels like knowing that her first record is now five years older than she was when she made it.
So who’s idea was it to get the old band back together?
Well, a friend of mine who runs my Facebook fan page pointed it out to me that it was the 25th anniversary, and that he really thought that he would like to see a show commemorating that. And that bug in my ear just wouldn’t go away, so I got my nerve up and emailed the rest of the guys about it.
You do know this whole “silver anniversary” thing kind of dates you, right?
[Laughs] I know! Well, 25 years sounded terrible, so (booking agent) Davis McLarty was like, “Let’s just call it the silver anniversary.” But the backfire there is that Ticketmaster apparently didn’t know what “silver anniversary” meant, so on Ticketmaster it says that it’s the 50th anniversary of the release of the record. So I was like, “Oh my God, we made it worse!”
So have you stayed in touch with all the Radio Ranch guys over the years? Do they all still live in the Austin area?
You know they all still live here, but I haven’t really been in touch with them apart from seeing them every now and then. Brad Fordham’s been playing with Dave Alvin, and they’re constantly on the road. Mike Hardwick as you know is a busy local guy with Jon Dee Graham and other people — he’s in the studio all the time, but I don’t see him that often. I have crossed paths with David Murray occasionally, because he works with the City of Austin Music Office and he’s reached out to me about a couple of things. And Mas I never really see; he’s the only one who really went legit, he works for Dell now. So we definitely haven’t all been together as a group since the old days. So I was a little nervous about it. I put together this email, which was very, “I love you guys, you’re my brothers, I don’t know how you feel about this, but I would love to get back together to celebrate this milestone …” And they were all very immediately kind and gracious and happy to do it, so it was cool.
I take it a little rehearsing was in order. Did it take awhile for y’all to click just right again?
Yeah, we’ve been rehearsing — we started in early December. And it’s been really fun, I have to say. We immediately fell right back in to old friendships. And David Murray actually has a memory just like a steel trap; this guy just remembers everything, and is reminding us of all the stupid things we used to do, pranks we would pull on each other on the road or dumb things we said somewhere. It’s really weird how much he can remember. So we’re having a lot of fun. But for me the really interesting part is … imagine being able to go back to something you created 25 years ago with whatever talents you had back then, maybe something you wrote that you really felt passionate about, and looking at it with the seasoned skills that you’ve acquired since then. It’s still something you created and it’s still you, but it’s strange to be recreating it. Like, I didn’t play guitar very well back then, and the way I sang was really limited back then, so it’s really interesting to me to come back to that stuff now. The other guys I think had much more talent than I did back then, but I’m sure they’re experiencing a similar thing. But it’s a really unique perspective and an interesting creative situation to be in, and I’m excited to be playing this stuff and seeing if I can improve upon it.
I’ve got a copy of Well Travelled Love on CD myself, but is the album even still in print?
It’s not. I actually reached out to Universal, who have MCA now, and asked them if they would please let me have access to that stuff, and they were very kind to me and worked with me to get to the right people in L.A. to make an exception to let me do a limited pressing of 500, just to sell at the shows. I just decided to do that instead of … we actually had some other options, like we could have done a big national reissue. But that would have taken more time, and they would have probably ended up doing it with (1991’s) Bang Bang, you know a double reissue kind of a thing, and I just wasn’t interested in that. I just wanted to be able to have the record in print and have it available at these shows, just for those purposes alone. So that’s what we’re doing, and we should have them any day now.
I gotta say, that’s pretty remarkable that Universal/MCA let you do that.
I thought so, too! I wrote them a very pleading, woe-is-me letter, basically saying, “I spent all these years working on this material, and none of my material from then is still in print.” I mean, none of MCA stuff is in print anymore, which just seems wrong; I think that an artist should be able to have their record at their show when they play. But they were very kind and worked with me and made it happen.
It’s still on iTunes though, right?
Yeah, you can get any of my stuff on iTunes, which is great.
You and Mas originally moved down to Austin from Virginia with another band, the Fireballs. How long did that last before Radio Ranch came together?
We moved down here in December of ’87, so really just the start of ’88, and we split up after about six months, and then almost immediately put together Radio Ranch. So it was very quick by the time we put the band together and got our Nashville deal, less than two years.
What was your first impression of the Austin scene at the time? Did it live up to your expectations?
It was everything we had hoped it would be. Evan Johns and the H-Bombs, who we knew in D.C., had encouraged us to move down here, but we also really loved the Tailgators and the LeRoi Brothers, and they were reasons why we wanted to move here. So we loved it here when we got here; it still felt very small, but the music scene was really happening. There were gigs to be had. We were moving from a place where we could get maybe one or two gigs a month, and we had to fight really hard for those spots. But we moved here and had lots of opportunities to play, and it was a really welcoming environment. I remember Tom Lewis from the Wagoneers helping us put up posters all over town for our gigs, which was really wonderful, because in D.C., it was really cut throat. But everybody seemed to support each other here.
I remember you telling me once about how shy you were onstage in those early days. But obviously you kept doing it. What motivated you at the time in spite of your stage fright?
Well, I always loved music, and I loved singing and I loved being part of the band. And all of that way outweighed my intense social phobia. But I was very awkward and very shy onstage, and poor Mas, after every gig on the drive home, he would just get an earful of “What about when I did this? Wasn’t that horrible? Oh my god, it was so embarrassing!” And he would have to go, “No, cut it out, you were great, you were wonderful.” To his credit, he did do that. But I really loved it and really wanted to do that with my life, and it was so exciting and fun that I was willing to endure the horror of the social fear that I had. And yeah, I was really nervous and really awkward. But I got enough positive feedback from it that it encouraged me to keep going.
Were you feeling any more confident by the time you went into the studio for the first time?
Yeah, I did feel more confident in the studio, because you’re just surrounded by people you know; it’s not as much of that performance fear. So that was different. I still didn’t have a lot of studio experience and was learning a lot on the job, but it was easier.
The press release your publicist sent out about these reunion shows mentioned Nanci Griffith playing a role in getting you signed to MCA, or at least in getting you on Tony Brown’s radar. What’s the story there?
Well it was just a little thing, actually. She was playing in town and Tony Brown had come into town for her show. And she came to the Continental Club like the night before her gig, and we happened to be playing there. And she called Tony and said “You’ve got to get down here, I really think you’d like this girl.” But of course we were done before he could get around to getting there, but it put my name in his ear, so the next time that we had a showcase or something, he came to that.
It is interesting to me that Mas wrote five of the songs on the record, one of them with you. And your friend Monte Warden from the Wagoneers wrote two of the other ones. So I assume this was all material that the band had been playing for awhile. Were you aware at the time of just how rare that was, for a new act signed to a Nashville label to be allowed to not only play on their own record, but bring in most of their own songs?
I was, although I was also a little naive about the music business. I didn’t know Nashville’s tendency towards making people do the songs they wanted them to do. I knew a little bit about that, but I was pretty dumb about the business in general. I didn’t understand the difference between labels in New York and L.A. and Nashville. I mean, we all liked the Blasters, but I didn’t know where their label was or how their deal might have been different from ours. So much of that was still Greek to me, and it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized how lucky we were to get that chance. But yeah, a lot of that stuff Mas and I had been doing since our first band, the Fireballs: “Well Travelled Love” and “Red Sunset” and “River of Love” we had been doing in that other band. And those songs really, I felt, created the personality of our music. They were the bedrock of our sound.
How many of those songs stuck around in your set list in the ensuing years?
I still occasionally do “River of Love.” That was in my set for years, but now it’s not so much in there, just because I’ve got a lot of records now and I have to do two songs from each record and stuff. “I Don’t Want to Love You (But I Do)” still gets played occasionally in my set. But that’s really it.
My personal favorite song on the record has always been “Hole in My Heart,” by Steve Earle. Was that one Tony Brown brought to the table?
That’s a really great song, but no, we actually brought that in ourselves. In fact I don’t think Tony brought any songs to us; we had all this stuff ready to go, and I think it was just a matter of him helping to pick things out of this big pile of songs. Anyway, we had found that song on a demo tape, just Steve and his guitar. He’d written it with Richard Dobson. That one is kind of fun to do now because one thing I’m realizing is back then I did a lot of these songs in the wrong key. I don’t know why. And they’re hard songs to sing! Half of these I would not do today because they don’t suit my voice very well, but I was so young then that I just didn’t know better. But Steve’s got a real stylized way of singing, and that’s a challenge to try and find my own voice on something like that.
You also recorded a cover of“Drive South,” which today of course is like a John Hiatt roots-rock warhorse, but at the time you cut it, it was only a year or two old — and wasn’t even a single of his, just an album track (from 1988’s Slow Turning).
Right. Nobody else had cut it yet. And then the Forester Sisters heard us do it and then they cut it, and then Suzy Bogguss did it and she had a big hit with it. But we always felt like it was ours first! It was John Hiatt’s, but we always felt like they stole it form us somehow. [Laughs]
Because these were songs you all had a real connection to at the time, does the record hold up for you when you listen to it today?
Yeah. I mean, it’s always hard to go back and listen to yourself, because there’s so much that has changed. But I really do love hearing the band and our youthful energy, because we play everything really frickin’ fast! So it makes me happy to hear it, because for me it was a really great spot in my life. If I can just get past listening to my voice, then it’s a lot of fun. It captures for me that early ’90s country scene that was unfolding here in Austin.
How long was Radio Ranch together? Wasn’t Well Travelled Love the last record to feature the full band?
Yeah. There was constant pressure from MCA on us to just have it be me. Even from the get-go, they only signed me. But the beauty of this record is that they allowed us to be the band that we were and record this record as a band. I think they were hoping that it would get it out of my system, and that it wold also give them some leeway to pressure me more on the future records. And we did end up crashing and burning under that pressure, but it was kind of a boring crash and burn; it just sort of happened. But this was really the sweet spot of this group; we had worked together to create this music that had … I think there was something a little bit special about it that caused us to get this opportunity to make that record. So it captured this sweet moment in time.
After these seven shows with the reunited band in January, what else do you have in store for this year? The last time I talked to you, right after you and Bruce released your second duo album, Our Year, back in 2014, you said the plan was to get started on a new solo album. How’s that coming along?
Well, I’ve got to get serious about that. I haven’t been serious about it. But Bruce and I have a trip to Europe in the summer, doing some shows together there. And I’m supposed to be doing this song for the Old 97s tribute record — I’m doing the song “Rollerskate Skinny,” but I haven’t gotten in the studio yet. I can’t wait to do it, though, it’s a fun song. But that’s about it, really. Bruce is busy as ever, and we’re trying to do our solo stuff, but you know, we keep getting dragged back into doing stuff together. Which we love to do, of course, but it’s hard to find time that way.
Which is why you’re doing these shows now with your ex husband …
[Laughs] That’s right! I keep teasing Bruce that next year, it could be the “Mas and Kelly Christmas Show” if he’s not careful!