On her third album for Ryko, Kelly Willis covers two rock songs: "Teddy Boys," a characteristically cute number by former Moldy Peach Adam Green, and "Success," an Iggy Pop co-write with David Bowie from Lust for Life. Country covers are a big business, commercially and critically: The Dixie Chicks landed a hit with "Landslide." Gillian Welch and David Rawlings cover The Band and Cyndi Lauper. Johnny Cash spent nearly the last decade of his career covering songs by Will Oldham, Trent Reznor and dozens of others. But it's a risky gambit.
If, for instance, Cash's Rick Rubin-assisted takes on Danzig's "Thirteen" and Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" had failed completely, Cash's hard-as-concrete legacy wouldn't have suffered too much. But people rightly liked Cash, his story and, most importantly, the emotional gravity his baritone was able to lend to these barebones songs at age 72. Willis, like pretty much every other country singer, doesn't have Cash's rich backstory or Cash's extreme magnetism. Instead, she's a 39-year-old songwriter born southeast of the Oklahoma panhandle. She's had major-label troubles, but she's still got a pretty, pretty good voice in 2007. She mostly cowrites songs and sings other people's. She's married to Bruce Robison, who's written some country radio hits.
Sure, hearing Willis and her band take a turn at "Success" is plenty fun now. After all, about half of Translated from Love is about Willis coming to terms with only modest success as a full-time entertainer, and her band's proclamations of "Here comes success! Hooray success!" are smartly tongue-in-cheek but exuberant enough not to sound cynical. But doesn't a country artist covering a song written by Bowie and Iggy, two of the coolest rock stars ever, set up a pretty faulty series of expectations? If Willis doesn't keep up the trend, novelty fans will be disappointed. And maybe the covers will just start to sound bad. One wrong interpretation ends the whole love affair: Nickel Creek actually put the right smile on Pavement's "Spit on a Stranger," but Chris Thile's turn on The White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" last year was a hairspray-and-shoe polish disaster.
But, if she keeps it up, fans will be placated long enough to fall for the newer singer covering newer, quirkier songs. Give it a while, and someone will be handing back to us The New Pornographers, Andrew Bird and maybe even The Hold Steady with steel guitars and brushed drums. Maybe it will be Kelly Willis, but, with this stuff, there's really no telling.
Kelly Willis plays Cat's Cradle Sunday, July 29, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $16-$18.