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What Kelly Willis is up to

The singer opens for Clint Black and is on the soundtrack for ”Thelma & Louise”

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I was afraid to sing in high school,” admits Kelly Willis, ”because even if I was singing along to U2, I’d do it a lot harder and louder than my friends.” That’s not difficult to imagine, given Willis’ lusty vocal blend of heartbreak and honky-tonk. That power, combined with smart songs and Western swing-style arrangements, led to raves for her 1990 debut, Well Travelled Love. Willis, 22, has just released her second album, Bang Bang; one of her songs can be heard on the soundtrack of Thelma & Louise; and she’ll be opening for Clint Black on some tour dates this summer. ”I can’t tell if things are going faster,” she says, ”or if I’m just losing my grip.”

Growing up in Annandale, Va., Willis easily imitated the singing styles of Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline, then played in a rockabilly band before moving to her current home, Austin, Tex. She admits her first album may have been ”a little too rough sounding” for radio, but even that seems to be changing: Her frisky single ”Baby Take a Piece of My Heart” is skipping up the country charts. ”As a woman, it’s hard to get respect in this field unless you know ahead of time what to do,” she says. ”But I’ve gained so much confidence, it’s amazing. In the studio, people ask me, ‘What do you think?’ I’m not used to being asked that.”