Jhe Willis Clan, a sibling musical group 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 short time.
However, while everything looked good, when the cameras weren’t rolling, that was a different story.
“While there were a lot of wonderful, happy things, there were also some really toxic things that have been there since I was a kid,” said Jessica Willis Fisher, the eldest of the siblings. “My father was violent in every possible way for a person. When I was younger, that was just my norm. I stayed in this environment until I finally got out.
Six years later, Fisher began performing again, this time as a solo artist. She wrote a memoir, “Unspeakable,” which was released Tuesday, and she will soon be bringing her singing talents to Columbus on April 27 as the first headliner of Steve and Kay Ellis’ Barn 2023 concert series.
The Ellises founded the Barn Concert Series two years ago, holding six concerts a 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 people here might not know about and get them to hear some really talented new artists,” he said.
When Steve first heard Fisher’s music, it caught his attention.
“I usually go to the Americana Music Fest in Nashville to scout for different talent to try and bring to Columbus,” he said. “I was going to go this year but I had to have surgery on my neck so I couldn’t go. But I was on their app. You can hear the music from all the people who were going to produce that week and that’s who I stumbled upon. … I really liked her and I thought, ‘She’s someone I have to pursue to bring here.’ I really didn’t know anything about his story or anything until I contacted his stepfather.
Once he heard the story of the things she had been through, he decided that Fisher was definitely someone to bring to town.
Not only did Steve book Fisher for the concert series, but he also began working on setting up a book signing of her new memoir and having her speak at the University of Mississippi for Women.
“We can’t wait to have Jessica here,” he said. “Just what a story. It’s a sad and horrifying story in many ways, but the fact that she was able to come out the other side and start a new life is inspiring.
Fisher is also looking forward to his next stay in The Friendly City.
“It sounds really exciting,” she said.
A difficult journey
Fisher was 21 when the group made their appearance on Season 9 of “America’s Got Talent.” The siblings qualified for the quarter-finals before being eliminated.
After AGT’s appearance, TLC created a reality series “The Willis Family” which ran for two seasons.
This rise to prominence propelled the family into the public eye, and Fisher’s struggles with behind-the-scenes abuse came to a head. This caused her to leave the group.
“It was super hard, I wouldn’t even say ‘the decision’ to leave, just the experience of breaking up. … Being on stage trying to sing, trying to make it look like everything was okay from the outside,” she said. “There was such a radical contradiction at that time and it all came to a head because I couldn’t go on living that way anymore.”
She separated just before her 24th birthday and it took her a while to come to terms with the situation.
“It was kind of like my whole life started over and I went through a lot of therapy,” she said. “I got really amazing help and my dad was arrested soon after. I really felt like I had this chance to build this new life.
This new life, for a time at least, did not include music. But she started to realize she could tell her story through the medium – releasing the album “Brand New Day” in April.
“Last year I finally decided to get back to reclaiming my voice in a musical context and releasing my first solo album,” she said.
Memoirs followed and the whole experience was therapeutic, she said.
“The more I put the pieces of the puzzle together and learned to face my own story, the more healing it was for me,” she said. “I had never written or spoken about the details of the abusive things I had experienced. 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, food and drinks. Season tickets are also available for $150 and offer a bonus show for season ticket holders only.
Each concert also raises funds for a local charity through donations.
For more information, visit “The Barn” concert series on Facebook.
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