May 09, 1994 12:00 PM

Kelly Willis seems to lack just one essential quality for country music stardom. She has the voice: all growls and slurs that one reviewer called “a thing of aching, searing purity.” She has the face: When MCA/Nashville president Tony Brown spotted her singing, he reportedly told her, “I don’t just want to sign you, I want to marry you!” The problem? Those fine reddish-blond tresses that even industrial-strength hair spray won’t hoist to the heights of Dolly or Wynonna. “Maybe that’s the reason I never made it in Nashville,” says the 25-year-old singer, laughing. ” ‘We can’t get her hair any bigger, she’s gotta go.’ ”

So after three modest-selling albums—including last summer’s eponymous CD—the Oklahoma-born Willis remains mostly a cult hero whose fans include actor Tim Robbins, who cast her in a singing part for Bob Roberts, and the folks at MGM, who used two of her songs in Thelma & Louise. Since her two-year marriage to drummer Mas Palermo ended in 1991, Willis has lived with singer-songwriter Bruce Robison and is determined to court fame in her own way. Forget the big hair. Clad in old denim and cowboy boots at her Austin, Texas, home, she says of her beauty routine, “I probably should be doing more. I don’t even clean my face every night.”

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