Mansfield Living

Country celebrities hit Farr Best

Kelly Willis will perform Saturday at the Farr Best Theater.
Kelly Willis will perform Saturday at the Farr Best Theater. Courtesy photo

The 98-year-old Farr Best Theater will host a pair of celebrated touring country acts over the next two weekends.

Kelly Willis, whose powerful voice has been on the road since she was a teen-ager, steps onto the Farr Best stage at 8 p.m. Saturday. Richard Leigh also found youthful success penning two of Crystal Gayles’s biggest hits. His band starts at 8 p.m. Feb. 13, at the Farr Best.

Willis is kicking off her “Mini-tour” in Mansfield, then moving on to two shows in Houston next week. Then she’ll join her singer/songwriter husband Bruce Robison and start a brief tour in March that includes two stops in Canada.

“This is kind of a let’s-get-back-in-there-and-get-swinging kind of thing,” she said.

At 46, she has been swinging at it for 30 years.

The Lawton, Okla., native was 16 when she joined her boyfriend’s rockabilly band in the Washington, D.C., area. After she graduated high school, the band relocated to the Austin music scene, where they promptly unraveled and parted ways. Her boyfriend became her first husband, also briefly, but she doesn’t regret the bold adventure of moving away to pursue a dream.

“I could never look back after that. It was too exciting,” she said. “I was a really shy person. This is the first time I didn’t blend in with the wall. So there was no hope of ever having another career path.”

Willis has since recorded six solo albums, followed by a pair of duet albums with Robison. Now she’s writing songs for a ninth album, which she hopes to record later this year.

Although her albums typically won the hearts of critics, sales were slow and they didn’t play well on the country charts. She has fared much better on the Americana charts.

In fact, their first duet album, “Cheater’s Game,” released in 2013, earned two nominations from the Americana Music Association for Album of the Year and Duo/Group of the year.

Willis’ musical style has been described as young country (mostly in the beginning), Americana, alternative country and traditional country.

She doesn’t like the labeling, but she definitely doesn’t consider herself mainstream country. She never pursued that genre, she said, in part because of her natural shyness. She road-toughened her nerve in those early years, but not enough for the level of self-promotion she believes is necessary for that world.

“I was never the kind of person who makes that kind of success happen,” Willis said. “You have to be a young person for that game. I was much more interested in the artistic side of it, and I’m glad that’s the way it went. I don’t think I would have been happy in that kind of life.”

She and Robison are playing around the U.S. supporting their two duo albums. Now that they have four children, they’ve dialed backed on the rigorous traveling.

But it’s still the best part of the business, Willis said.

“Honestly, it’s being on stage with my friends and listening to them make amazing music,” she said. “It’s a living, breathing thing, the live show. I feel blessed to get to do that.”

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Leigh’s success came fast. As a college student, he wrote the tune “I’ll Get Over You,” which Crystal Gayle liked and, most importantly, recorded. A year later, he penned, “Don’t It Make Your My Brown Eyes Blue,” which became Gayle’s biggest hit – and one of ASCAP’s 10 “Song of the Century Award” winners.

But they were like lottery tickets, waiting to be cashed in. He said he wouldn’t learn their value until a couple years after he graduated from college with a degree in theater education and moved to Nashville to be a staff songwriter for a music publishing company.

After Gayle recorded his first hit song, Leigh, who had long adopted a “very Spartan life,” suddenly had checks rolling in. The first, for $10,000, would be the smallest, but perhaps the most awesome.

“I was used to $200 a month that I could make odd-jobbing” as a professional actor, said Leigh, now 63. “I’d never seen a check with a comma in it. It blew my mind. I had $200 in the bank, and by the end of that year I’d made $75,000. And it kept earning.”

Over the next couple of years, his income soared well into the six figures, he said.

Basically, his career was off to a good start.

Within one year of his Nashville debut, he had a No. 1 record, and within three years he had two No. 1 records, a Grammy and a Country Music Association Award,” he said. “Then 20 years and one month after arriving in town, I was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

“It’s unheard of; it’s supernatural help,” he added. “I’m not smart enough to have done that on my own.”

His success was as grand as his beginning was dire.

He was orphaned at 2 ½ years old when his parents died, and lived in foster care until he was adopted at age 15. “By then I had my fourth father and third mother,” he said.

At age 10, he started writing songs about his life, but he didn’t know he might have a gift until he took a junior high school music course and had to perform a song. A teacher agreed that he could sing one of his own songs, a sad one called “Rain,” and accompany himself on the guitar.

“I’d never played for anyone but family before,” he said, but when he finished, “All the kids burst into applause.”

The teacher, apparently stunned, asked him if he actually wrote the song, and she asked him to play it again.

“I did, and the kids burst into applause again.”

His reputation – he calls it notoriety – really blossomed in college. There are few things cooler than a kid who frequents smoky bars with his guitar and gets called up on stage to play a couple of tunes.

“I would go to some famous place, like the Cellar Door, and go in there and get standing ovations,” he said.

Initially, Leigh loved the daily grind of the professional songwriter – write in the morning at home, go out for a long lunch, come back and write some more. Then it was on to dinner and a night of drifting in and out of bars, in search of inspiration.

“Everyone was on the same schedule,” he recalled. “It was like being in college.”

But over the years it got old, and then mind numbing. He moved out to a farm south of town in 1996, but said he wasn’t really free until he retired from Music Row in 2009.

But Leigh, who is twice divorced, with four grown children and 12 grandkids, has no regrets about his career choice. Between 1974 and 1994, when he joined the Hall of Fame, Leigh wrote nine songs that made it to No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Music Chart, recorded by such royalty as Steve Wariner, Reba McEntire and Mickey Gilley. He had many other album cuts between those No. 1’s, and well beyond.

But it’s been about 20 years since his last chart topper. He had a Top 10 song in 2000, performed by the Dixie Chicks. And he still writes and – for just the past decade or so – also sings. Now he has the freedom to tour.

“It was like I had a job change,” he said, “but still with the same company.”

Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641

Twitter: @Kaddmann

Farr Best Theater

109 N. Main St.

The remaining tickets for the Kelly Willis performance on Saturday are $20 each. Tickets for the Richard Leigh show on Friday, Feb. 13 are $17 to $22. Tickets are available at the theater website: www.farrbest.com.

Alcoholic beverages aren’t served at the theatre, but patrons can bring their own in a cooler small enough to fit under their seat.

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