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The Wonder Women Of Country Are A 'Trio' For Our Times

Lyza Renee
Kelly Willis, Melissa Carper, and Brennen Leigh

A scientific fact I just made up is that musical collaborations are exponential, so if a two-way confluence of artists is X times two, then three artists give us X to the third power, and that’s pretty powerful! In 1987, you may recall, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt got together to make Trio, one of the best roots albums of all time. A bit later, Dolly made an album with Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. Of late, three vital and original big deals in Americana - Kelly Willis, Brennen Leigh and Melissa Carper - have joined forces as Wonder Women Of Country. Again, the sum exceeds its parts.

Wonder Women started in 2021 when, after they’d built a friendship and found themselves sharing bills by happenstance, Willis proposed banding together for some touring, where they could share the stage, not as a standard in-the-round songwriter thing, but as bandmates, backing each other up and working up new material together. It helped that Carper plays standout standup bass, while Leigh is a superb lead guitarist. Fans have been loving it, and naturally they started asking if there was a recording to take home. The WWOC have made good on that desire with a self-titled EP, released on March 15.

All three wonder women should be known to the discerning country music fan. Kelly Willis flashed into the national spotlight when Nashville’s Tony Brown signed her out of Texas to MCA Records for her 1990 debut album Well Traveled Love. She took on an important place in the “great credibility scare” of that magical decade with an unmistakable and powerful voice that landed her ultimately in the Austin Music Hall of Fame.

Nashville-based Brennen Leigh has seen her career as an artist and writer take flight since the pandemic. Amid the difficult process of parting ways with her husband and musical partner, the Minnesota native found her own voice and released three exceptional and varied albums in as many years - 2020’s Prairie Love Letter, 2022’s Obsessed With The West (a collaboration with Asleep At The Wheel), and last year’s Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet. She’s had songs recorded by Charley Crockett, Lee Ann Womack and Rodney Crowell.

Melissa Carper may be less known to roots fans as a journeywoman of the folk and old-time circuit and member of Arkansas string band Sad Daddy. Since growing up in a family country band out of Nebraska, over the past 30 years or so, she’s played bass, written songs, and moved about the country, busking and connecting with one project after another. In 2021, Carper poured her experience and her moving old-school voice into her breakout album Daddy’s Country Gold. (Here’s a Q&A about that.)

The efficient six-song Wonder Women EP, recorded in Austin at Ray Benson’s Bismeaux On The Hill studio, features two songs primarily by each member. It starts with Leigh setting her cooing voice and country yodels against the elegant lap steel of Chris Scruggs on the whimsical “Fly Ya To Hawaii.” Willis’s first offering is “Another Broken Heart,” which she calls “a classic crying in your beer heartbreak song” started by her former husband Bruce Robison and Monte Warden but finished when she overheard them working and inserted herself. The background vocals here are a pure example of how this trio breathes together in service of the music.

Carper’s lead on “Won’t Be Worried Long” is a co-write with Leigh about the abiding healing power of classic country music, while her other offering brings a rhumba feel and three-part vocals to “I Have Met My Love Today,” drawn from John Prine’s Tree of Forgiveness album.

The closest the trio will get to Nashville this spring is St. Louis on April 20, but I’m hearing they'll showcase at AmericanaFest this Fall. It’s easy to imagine a cycle of enthusiasm built by this recording and well-received shows making this mighty superhero supergroup a more permanent thing, and I’d sure love to hear a full length album some day.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org