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Honky-tonk pop

Alt-country queen Kelly Willis comes to Juanita’s

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Legend has it that when she moved to Austin in the mid-'80s, Kelly Willis drove across the country listening to a cassette with Patsy Cline on one side and NRBQ on the other. The contrast of the country music pioneer and the quirky pop band gets to the heart of the music Kelly Willis makes. There's a constant and compelling tension between her beautifully effortless singing and the catchy pop songs that largely make up her records.

Dubbed “alternative country's golden goddess” by NPR, Willis headlines a show at Juanita's Thursday night. She was last in town this summer to open for Merle Haggard at Robinson, and returns to support her latest release, “Translated from Love.”

Willis was signed to MCA in the early 1990s and released three albums in just over three years to much critical acclaim. Despite a significant push from the label and enthusiastically good press, she never found radio success, and parted ways with the label in 1994.

Since leaving MCA, Willis has only released three albums in 13 years (on the smaller and hipper Rykodisc label), but those records represent the best work of her career.

The drastic slowdown in output is largely due to her family commitments. She has four children under the age of six (with Austin hit songwriter Bruce Robison). When planning her new album, Willis said recently in a phone interview that she “had absolutely no time or energy to be involved in the producer role at all.” So she called longtime collaborator Chuck Prophet.

Prophet, who made his name in Green on Red, has become an in-demand session player and producer and was an ideal fit for Willis's left-of-center take on country music. Originally conceived as a record of covers, the album builds on the singer's trademark knack for recasting pop gems as rootsy Texas honky-tonk classics. In the past, she's recorded songs by the likes of Marshall Crenshaw and Paul Westerberg. “Even though I do country music I always felt like [the pop songs] fit in — they're just great songs — and I could put a little different twist on them,” Willis said.

The new album follows the same path, but in addition to songs written by Iggy Pop and Adam Green (the Moldy Peaches), “Translated from Love” features a several songs Willis co-wrote with Prophet and pop mastermind Jules Shear.

Willis and Prophet listened to 30 or so songs before they found anything they agreed on for the album.

“Chuck brought in the Jules Shear song,” Willis said. “It ended up being the first song we both liked, so when that happened it was a huge sigh of relief because a lot of songs had gone back and forth, and we were really starting to get nervous. He was a kind of a good luck charm.”

Their enthusiasm for that song, “The More That I'm Around You,” led Prophet to change gears on the covers concept and bring Shear in to co-write with Willis.

One of the resulting original songs, “Don't Know Why,” is the album's strongest track, placing Willis' soaring vocal over a '60s girl-group groove.

Austin swashbucklers the Gourds back Willis on the raucous, Doug Sahm-inspired take on Iggy Pop's “Success.” It's an unlikely song choice, but it works, largely because of the Gourds' wild group background vocals. Willis says they “just seemed like a really natural choice because it's a really fun call-and-response kind of thing. And who's more fun than the Gourds?”

Touring in support of the record takes some extra organization with four small children. But Willis and Robison, who himself released a new EP last spring, trade weekends on the road. Maintaining a balance between home life and her career is a constant struggle, and even getting time alone with a guitar is a rarity, Willis says.

“There's a million other things I could be doing. And the kids are obviously the biggest priority, so everything is going to be sacrificed for them,” she says. Lucky for Little Rock, Robison is home with the kids this weekend.

Little Rock's keepers of the Bakersfield flame, the Salty Dogs, recently released their third record, “Autoharpoon.” The album is getting attention across the country for its meticulous recreation of the sounds made famous by Buck Owens and Ray Price. They open the show at 9 p.m.

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