Before Willis found fame in Texas back in 1990, she was rocketing around the suburbs of Fairfax County, singing foot-on-the-gas rockabilly tunes. “I got my first real musical education in the rockabilly scene,” Willis says. “And with this record in particular, I really tried to lean on the stuff that got me excited about music when I was a teenager — that kind of rootsy sound that I heard in clubs [near] Northern Virginia.”
It was a teeming scene, once upon a time. Her main haunts? “The Roxy, and the Twist and Shout, and sometimes the [old] 9:30 Club,” Willis says. And who were the regulars? “Oh, Tex Rubinowitz, and Danny Gatton, and Leslee Anderson, and the Vibrato Brothers,” she says. And how about the crowds? “Well, I remember opening for the Sun Rhythm Section at the Twist and Shout, and Bob Dylan was there. I don’t know if he saw us or not, but he was there.”
As for Willis, she didn’t stick around long. Her band, Kelly and the Fireballs, left Annandale for Austin in 1987, and since then, Willis has been singing clean, bright, graceful, durable country songs — but only when she feels like it. “Back Being Blue” is her first proper solo album in more than a decade.
“I’ve always made music when I feel like I’ve had music to make,” she says, explaining how her “weird little level” of renown allows her to work on her own terms. “I really do feel the benefits of not being so well-known that your life is no longer your own. . . . It’s a freeing place to be.”