The Willis Clan, a musical group composed of siblings from Nashville, rose to fame in the mid-2010s after an appearance on “America’s Got Talent.” The family had 12 children and even had a reality show for a brief time.
However, while everything seemed fine, when the cameras weren’t rolling it was a different story.
“Although there were a lot of wonderful, happy things, there were also some really toxic things that have been present ever since my childhood,” said Jessica Willis Fisher, the eldest of the siblings. “My dad was abusive in every way that a person can be. When I was younger, that was just my norm. I stayed in that environment until I finally got out.”
Six years later, Fisher is now beginning to perform again, this time as a solo artist. She penned a memoir, “Unspeakable,” that was released on Tuesday, and she will soon bring her singing talents to Columbus April 27 as the first headlining act for Steve and Kay Ellis’ 2023 Barn Concert Series.
The Ellises founded the Barn Concert Series two years ago, holding six concerts per year between April and October at their property on Mac Davis Road east of Columbus. Previous headliners include Red Dirt Boys, Paul Thorn, Andrew Duhon and Bonnie Bishop.
“(We try to) bring original talent to Columbus and Lowndes County that the people around here may not be familiar with and let them hear some new, very talented artists,” he said.
When Steve first heard Fisher’s music, it grabbed his attention.
“I usually go to the Americana Music Fest in Nashville to scout out different talent to try and bring to Columbus,” he said. “I was going to go this year but then I had to have neck surgery, so I didn’t get to go. But I was on their app. You can hear music from all of the people that were going to be performing that week and she was one I stumbled upon. … I just really liked her and thought, ‘This is somebody I need to pursue to bring down here.’ I didn’t know anything really about her story or anything until I contacted her father in law.”
Once he heard the story of the things she had been through, he decided Fisher was definitely someone to bring to town.
Not only did Steve book Fisher for the concert series, he also began working on setting up a book signing of her new memoir as well as having her speak at Mississippi University for Women.
“We are looking forward to having Jessica down here,” he said. “Just what a story. It’s a sad, horrific story in so many ways, but the fact that she has been able to come out the other side and start a new life is inspiring.”
Fisher is also looking forward to her upcoming time in The Friendly City.
“It sounds really exciting,” she said.
A hard journey
Fisher was 21 when the group made its appearance on Season 9 of “America’s Got Talent.” The siblings advanced to the quarterfinals before being eliminated.
Following the AGT appearance, TLC created a reality series “The Willis Family” that lasted for two seasons.
This rise to fame thrust the family into the public eye, and Fisher’s struggles with the abuse behind the scenes came to a head. This led to her leaving the group behind.
“It was a super hard, I wouldn’t even say ‘decision,’ to leave, but just the experience of basically breaking. … Being up on stage trying to sing, trying to make it look like everything was OK from the outside,” she said. “There was such a drastic contradiction during that time and it all came to a head because I couldn’t keep living that way.”
She broke away just before her 24th birthday, and it took a while for her to come to terms with the situation.
“It was kind of like my whole life kind of started over and I got into a lot of therapy,” she said. “I had some really amazing help and my dad was, not too long after that, arrested. I really felt like I had this chance to build this new life.”
This new life, for a while at least, didn’t include music. But she began to realize that she could tell her story through the medium – releasing the album “Brand New Day” in April.
“Just this past year, I did finally decide to come back to reclaiming my voice in a musical context and put out my debut solo album,” she said.
The memoir followed, and the whole experience has been therapeutic, she said.
“The more that I put the puzzle pieces together and learned how to face my own story was just super healing for me,” she said. “I hadn’t ever put down or talked about the specifics of the abusive things I had been through. Once I started, I couldn’t really stop.”
Other headliners for this year’s Barn Concert Series include Michaela Anne, Shannon McNally, Jim Lauderdale, the Paul Thorn Band and The Wild Ponies.
Tickets for individual shows are $30 each and cover the concert, meal and drinks. Season tickets are also available for $150 and feature a bonus show for season ticket holders only.
Each concert also raises money for a local charity through donations.
For more information, visit “The Barn” Concert Series on Facebook.
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