Kelly Willis & Radio Ranch reunite to mark 25 years since first album

It’s an oft-told cautionary tale in the music business, and that was especially the case when Kelly Willis first attracted attention almost three decades ago: A young artist barely out of school signs on to make a debut album, only to find that the record label has an entirely different vision for the singer’s identity.

In this case, though, there was a novel twist. Rather than dictating musicians and material to Willis, MCA Records allowed her to make “Well Travelled Love” in 1990 with her established Austin backing band, Radio Ranch. The repertoire was basically theirs to choose, and nearly half the songs came from the band’s drummer, Mas Palermo, who was married to Willis at the time.

Not that there weren’t crises with MCA looming just around the corner. By the time Willis was ready to make her second album, 1991’s “Bang Bang,” the label was applying pressures that ended up dismantling Radio Ranch. But right out of the gate, at least, Willis and her bandmates enjoyed extraordinary freedom.

“I think they were giving us this record to get it out of our system,” Willis says on a brisk January morning at a Hyde Park coffee shop, “so that they’d be able to manipulate us more for what they needed and wanted the next time around. But this record’s process was great.”

Such fond memories of making “Well Travelled Love” led Willis to wonder, as the album hit its silver-anniversary mark last year, whether she could reconvene Radio Ranch to celebrate the occasion. She sent off a “lovely little email” to Palermo, guitarist David Murray, steel and slide guitarist Mike Hardwick and bassist Brad Fordham — all of whom, to her fine fortune, still live in Austin.

“We were all on friendly terms, but I still wasn’t really sure how they would respond to doing this. I was hoping they would respond positively, and they did,” she recalls.

“They were brothers to me. I learned so much from them and experienced so much in those early days of cutting my teeth and making music for a living. I have a lot of fond feelings for all of them, so I was real happy that they were all into it.”

They spent a few weeks rehearsing and booked a few January dates. And in an uncommon example of cooperation between a label and one of its former artists, MCA agreed to press a limited run of “Well Travelled Love” CDs for the band to sell at the shows.

Last week’s debut performance sold out the Cactus Cafe quickly, so they added shows this Saturday at the Continental Club and Sunday at Strange Brew. They also scheduled two appearances in the D.C. area, where Willis and Palermo lived before moving to Texas in December 1987.

Roots of Radio Ranch

Back then, their band was called Kelly & the Fireballs and included three other members who also moved from D.C., but that group splintered not long after the move. Willis remembers the duration being about six months; she’s mildly surprised when my live-music logs from the late ’80s indicate that I saw Kelly & the Fireballs in September 1988 at Hole in the Wall.

Willis and Palermo regrouped under the name Radio Ranch after Murray, who’d been playing with Marcia Ball, started giving Willis guitar lessons and promptly was enlisted as the new band’s guitarist. Next came Hardwick, who’d been playing with Jerry Jeff Walker, and Fordham, who moved to Austin from Toronto specifically for the gig at the recommendation of fellow Austin country upstarts the Wagoneers.

The pieces fell into place quickly. Acting on a tip from Nanci Griffith, who caught Radio Ranch one night at the Continental Club, MCA sent reps to see the band’s 1989 South by Southwest showcase at the Sheraton on Town Lake (now the Radisson on Lady Bird Lake). Soon they were in the studio with big-time producer Tony Brown, who was riding a string of hits with some of the biggest names in 1980s country (Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell).

“I remember practicing a whole bunch before we got up there,” Willis says. “I took some vocal lessons even. We really were nervous about it. We wanted to do well, and we understood the pressures in Nashville, being compared to the session players. It was terrifying, and exciting, and fun. We were all in it together.”

A quarter-century later, “Well Travelled Love” holds up to the passage of time, especially considering that Willis was barely old enough to drink when it was recorded. Palermo’s “River of Love” has stayed in her live repertoire throughout her career. She notes that her current husband, Bruce Robison, likes to play the Paul Kennerley/Kevin Welch tune “Looking for Someone Like You” when the couple perform duo shows. And her voice gave such a spark to John Hiatt’s “Drive South” that Nashville took notice, though the smash-hit single didn’t arrive until Suzy Bogguss covered it a couple of years later.

Last week at the Cactus, Radio Ranch’s version of “Drive South” caught fire, carefully placed near the end of the set because it pushes Willis’ vocals into the red, she explained. The band played nine of the 11 songs on “Well Travelled Love,” changing some of the arrangements to better suit her voice.

“We figured out a better key for the song ‘One More Time,’” she said beforehand, citing a tune that Wagoneers leader Monte Warden wrote with Emory Gordy Jr. “I can actually sing it now, and it’s fun! I just want the world to hear that song.” And indeed, it was a clear standout at the Cactus.

Expanding the repertoire

While the shows are designed to celebrate “Well Travelled Love,” it would be a short set if they played only songs from that album. At the Cactus, they added nine more selections from various stages of Willis’ career, songs she thought would work well with this specific set of musicians.

“We’re doing a few things from my more current material that I haven’t been able to do in a long time because I’m playing with Bruce, and Bruce doesn’t want to do the more rock ‘n’ roll stuff,” she says. “He’s always like, ‘What am I going to do on that? I’m going to look like a chump up there.’”

Shifting gears from singing duets with Robison to playing rave-ups with Palermo presents constant comic possibilities. At last month’s annual Bruce & Kelly’s Holiday Shindig, Robison quipped that “next year you could be here with Mas!” Midway through the Cactus show, Willis introduced one of Palermo’s songs and had to stop herself, admitting to him that “I almost called you Bruce.”

The clincher is “Take It All Out on You,” which Palermo and Robison wrote together for her 1993 self-titled record. Willis and Robison often have performed the song together, but at the Cactus, she delighted in introducing it to the crowd with Palermo on stage: “This one was written by my current husband and my ex-husband, which qualifies me to be a country singer in the first place.”

Willis and Robison have four children, which meant Robison was staying home with the kids for the Cactus gig. But they’ve made plans for Saturday’s show at the Continental Club so that Robison can attend, sit back and take it all in — as he might have done way back when, before their lives and careers became intertwined.

“It’s kind of surreal,” Willis says. “It’s really weird to go back to something you did 25 years ago, and then do it again. It’s something we created, and it’s our sound, but we’re so different now, and we have a different approach. We all feel like we’re improving it, and yet at the same time not changing it too much, because it’s still us.

“It was a sweet spot, this little window playing with these guys and making this record. That’s all I really wanted to celebrate.”

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