The untold story of the Willis family


The Willis family came to light in many American homes thanks to the reality show, The Willis Family. The show followed the family as they went about their daily exploits as a musical family. Residing in Nashville, Tennessee, viewers got to witness the singing and dancing talents of family’s many members. The parents are father, Toby, and mother, Brenda. The family has 12 children, ranging from 7-year-old Jada Marie to 25-year-old Jessica Jane. This list will let you into several little-known facts about the Willis family.

There are some surprising and tragic events throughout the history of the family, some of which they no doubt wish to leave in the past. Since appearing on our screens in America’s Got Talent, the hard-working children of the family have gone from strength to strength. Unfortunately, there was a major controversy following the allegedly disgraceful and immoral actions of the father, Toby, and so the family has spent some time away from the limelight.

Originating from Illinois, the family moved to Nashville, Tennessee in the early ’00s and living in the country music capital of the world has clearly influenced the band’s style of music. Taking residence regularly at one of country music’s institutions, fans of the genre will be very familiar with the Willis Clan, having seen them perform multiple times in the state.

Playing a wide range of instruments and demonstrating various talents, the children of the Willis family are a large group that was born to perform. They shot to fame in TLC’s reality show about their lives. TLC is a reality TV network that brought many Americans shows such as Cake Boss, My 600-lb Life, Say Yes to the Dress, and Little People, Big World. In fact, the TV network broadcasts to many countries across the world, so it makes global stars out of its cast members, not just national stars. With a history of turning everyday people into stars, the Willis family were all set to follow in the footsteps of many other ordinary families and people.

A scandal saw the Willis family at the center due to a tragedy that befell them, as their immense talent got muddled in the shocking revelations about actions previously kept hidden. Perhaps you are familiar with their work and want to know more, or maybe you’ve never heard of them. Either way, read on to find out everything there is to know about the fascination lives of the Willis family.

The Willis Clan

Going by the stage name of The Willis Clan, the family first featured on many of our screens at the audition stage of America’s Got Talent, in 2014. They were eliminated at the quarterfinal stage after singing in front of millions of viewers. The family sang renditions of songs such as; “The Power of Love,” “Fireflies” by Owl City, and “My Favorite Things.” Getting a clean sweep of yes votes from their audition, many thought the family would progress further than only the quarterfinal stage.

TLC approach

Following their appearance on America’s Got Talent, the family was contacted by a major TV network wishing to make the Willis family the stars of their own reality show. TLC approached the family to make them a part of their reality and lifestyle catalog of programs. Parents Toby and Brenda agreed with TLC’s request and not long after the Willis Clan appeared on our screens. The show followed the family’s attempts and progress as the children went about recording a studio album.

A typical day

The day to day lives of the Willis family was documented over two seasons, and it was clear for all to see that they had hectic lives. Besides the touring efforts and attempts to record a musical album, many of the children were still focused on completing their schoolwork. We got to witness some birthday parties and the wrestling tournament Jack and Jedidiah were involved in. There were proposals of marriage and the birth of several puppies, the camera crew must have been exhausted following them around every day.

TV ratings

The first season of The Willis Family show managed to average 1.4 million viewers, which was enough for the TV network, TLC, to commission a second series. While the first season focused on the family and their efforts to record an album, the second season was more of an insight into their everyday lives. The show did not return for a third series, though, due to the legal issues surrounding the immoral acts of the father, Toby, which were splashed across papers and the Internet once they came to light.

Similarity to 19 Kids and Counting

Thanks to the size of their family, the Willis’ drew comparisons to another TLC reality show – 19 Kids and Counting, which also featured a very large family, where all of the children’s names also began with the letter J. 19 Kids and Counting focused on the Duggar family and ran from 2008 until 2015. Comparisons were drawn again after some legal issues regarding one of the family members came to light – the eldest Duggerson, Josh, admitted to illicitly touching several underage girls, including some of his sisters.

Where it all began

Toby and Brenda met at high school – she was a senior, and he was a junior. They soon decided to settle down and get married. Toby was set to go out and be the breadwinner, but due to a horrific car accident that befell his family, Toby was awarded $100 million in damages for the loss of his six siblings. This allowed him to retire at the age of 30, and from there he began to raise his family with Brenda.

Family tragedy

20 years after losing several aunts and uncles in a horrific car accident, the children wrote a song in dedication to their fallen family members. The song, titled “Road to Watertown,” was written by Jenny Willis, who was due to be born months after the accident. Five of their relatives passed away instantly, with the sixth, Ben, passing away later in the hospital. The accident uncovered a massive scandal in Illinois politics, with multiple people going to jail due to their involvement in offering bribes for driving licenses.

Bribes for licenses

The tragic loss of the Willis family members in a car accident was the catalyst for an outcry against allegations of bribes offered to drive test centers to ensure truckers passed their driving tests. The accident that Rev. Duane and Janet Willis (Toby’s parents) were involved in, killing six of their children, was reportedly caused due to metal falling from a truck driven by a driver who obtained their license illegally. A truck company official admitted to offering cash to fix the test for the truck driver in the Willis car accident.

Big family

There are now over 30 grandchildren from the three surviving children of Rev. Duane and Janet Willis. Averaging ten children per child, we can bet the Willis family has a busy schedule at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Besides Toby and Brenda’s 12, the other two surviving children also keen to ensure they kept with the family tradition of having very large families. No doubt as the family grow up, their numbers will increase with new grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.

Nearly another tragedy

The Willis Clan were almost victims of tragedy themselves. Back in 2004, the family had a house fire, but luckily none of them suffered any lasting damage. All of their possessions we lost in the fire but thankfully the family remained intact. Mother Brenda spoke about the fire and said she was relieved she didn’t suffer the same fate as her mother-in-law in losing any of her children. The fire has proved the source of inspiration for the Willis family, giving them a new perspective on life.

A battle with bacteria

After a devastating fire brought their family home to the ground, The Willis Clan needed somewhere new to rest their heads. Instead of buying a new home, the family decided to pay out for a rental home that would house them all. However, in April 2016, disaster struck the family once more when they noticed that many of them were suffering from a mystery illness. As they began to wonder where these germs and bacteria were coming from, they soon discovered that they were closer to home than they first thought.

A home invasion

As they began to search the internet for clues and their home for any evidence of bacteria, The Willis Family brought in an expert to inspect their home to find the cause of their illnesses. As they took a trip to the basement and looked in the crevices of their rented accommodation, they soon noticed black mold on the walls and creeping onto the ceiling. To rectify this situation, the whole family had to move out so that the mold could be treated. Instead of moving into another rented home, the family moved onto a tour bus.

Thanking God

As proud Christians, the family regularly practice their faith and often meet like-minded families for their own “home church” events. After the family suffered a devastating blow when their family home caught on fire, Brenda said she rushed to hug her kids and thank God that none of them had been hurt. It is her faith in God that has seen her through some of the most harrowing experiences of her life, and would prove to be crucial as she faced even great points of despair in the future.

They have a bit of freedom

Despite adhering to their Christian faith, the Willis Clan are not strict with their rules. In fact, the kids have their own sense of freedom and are largely allowed to explore their own interests and hobbies – as well as goofing off, as seen here. During an interview with People magazine in 2015, the parents noted they were very open-minded and will always encourage their children to explore new avenues. However, they also stressed they would step in if their kids went too far in the wrong direction.

Family pressure

The children work hard, that is evident to anyone who watched them on the show. Physical fitness was always a priority and the fact that they could boast such accomplished wrestlers in their ranks was a testament to that. With so many expectations to perform, there must also have been ample amounts of pressure. However, with plenty of money to fall back on, the kids decided they did not want to go to college; instead, they set their sights on building a music career.

Learning at home

As many of the children within The Willis Clan are still young, fans often question about their education, voicing their concern that they may not get the education they are supposed to at their age. To answer these concerns, the Willis family has come up with the perfect solution, in the form of homeschooling their children, in addition to the “extra curricular” education they get from touring, performing and writing music. Indeed, during an interview with The Irish Mirror, father Toby noted that “the world is our classroom and the internet is our textbook.”

J is for…

It may have escaped your attention, but all of the Willis children’s names start with the letter J. Hopefully the parents were not running out of names by the time they got to the twelfth child. The names are; Jamie, Jessica, Jedidiah, Jeremiah, Joy-Anna, Jennifer, Jada, Jeanette, Jackson, Juliette, Jaeger, and Jasmine. Staying away from common J names like James and Jane means the family has room for a couple more kids if they wanted to add to their ranks.

Irish heritage

The kids did Irish dancing when they were young thanks to parents Toby and Brenda discovering they had Irish heritage, so the family decided they would like to remain close to their roots. Perhaps it is this reason that we can expect to see them performing at an Irish festival in Ohio in the summer. The style of music the family plays is Irish and Christian influenced, and the members play Irish instruments in several of their songs.

Talents of the kids

The Willis kids can do everything. They don’t just sing – the Willis Clan can dance, too. In fact, several of the kids have won awards and competitions for their abilities to move around a dancefloor. Not only do they need excellent footwork for dancing, but they had put that footwork to good use when they were winning wrestling competitions, as well. Clearly, the family has an abundance of talent, and they are not shy in exhibiting their skills to the rest of the world.

The sound of Willis

Being compared to the talented von Trapp family is an enormous compliment paid to the family because of their multitude of talents. The Willis Clan have performed at Dollywood, thanks to the exposure the reality show has given to the family. Many people who watched The Willis Family show will be aware that the family are not just singers and musicians, and that several of the group are accomplished dancers, too. That’s why when they perform on stage, they don’t stick to just playing music.

Jessica’s departure

One of the main selling points of The Willis Clan is that the band is made up of the whole family – but fans were shocked to hear that Jessica had abruptly decided to leave the band in 2016. At the time, the family did not confirm when or why Jessica had left, but after fans questioned her whereabouts, they quickly addressed her departure during a Facebook Live video. They noted that Jessica had decided to pursue her own hobbies and interests outside of the family band.

Cause for celebration

However, her new jewelry business is not the only change that has occurred in Jessica Willis’s life. As well as beginning a new life outside of her family clan, Jessica has also begun a new life with her fiancé! Indeed, it has not been confirmed when Sean Fisher popped the question, but The Inquisitor announced her engagement in March 2017. So far, she has not let any details slip about her wedding or when their nuptials will take place. We think congratulations are in order!

Her own path

Since leaving the band, Jessica has spent her time reinventing herself and distinguishing a difference between herself and her family. Not only has she dyed her signature blond locks darker, but she has also taken herself traveling and exploring with herfiancé, Sean. To pursue her own career outside of the world of music, Jessica has also created her own brand of jewelry called BardCraft and has even set up her own blog on the website which features personal thoughts and feelings, as well as tips on how to work leather.

She’s not the only one

Yet, Jessica Willis isn’t the only member of the Willis family who has placed a new ring on her finger. In October 2017, it was confirmed that Jeanette Willis – also known as Jett Willis – was also engaged. Fans of The Willis Family TLC family are familiar with her fiancé, as Cory Piatt appeared on the show when he took Jeanette for a chaperoned date. On a Facebook post at this time, the Willis daughter and the Mountain Faith Band mandolin player noted that they would be getting married in “a few short months.”

Didn’t work out

Unfortunately, there is one member of The Willis Clan who isn’t jumping for joy due to his own romantic life. In March 2016, fans of The Willis Family TV show on TLC were treated to an episode that explored the love life of Jeremiah “Jair” Willis. During this episode, Jair spoke to his sister, Jenny, about the fact that he had ended his engagement with his former fiancée, Mary Meyer. The pair broke up after the pressures of touring caused a rift within their relationship.

Grand Ole Opry

The Willis Clan has already made numerous appearances at the Grand Ole Opry – a historic music concert based in Nashville, Tennessee. The venue was established in 1925 and is still going strong, almost 100 years later. Regularly featuring at the country capital of the world was a sign they were on the right track, as legendary singers such as Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson have performed there. But despite wowing audiences with their music, the Willis children’s dreams and indeed their whole world were about to take a painful hit.

Prison and a guilty plea

After starring on their own reality show and gaining scores of fans for their music, The Willis Clan’s online presence suddenly went quiet in 2016. Before long, fans discovered this was due to the the father, Toby, confessing to having illicit relations with several children. After initially fleeing the state, Toby was brought back and sentenced to no less than 40 years in prison. Due to the nature of his crimes, TLC decided to cancel the Willis’ show.

Brenda speaks

After the horrific truth came out about her husband, Brenda released a statement thanking their family and friends for their support. She made remarks appreciating the love shown by their fans and wholeheartedly thanked the law enforcement for the part they played in it all. Brenda commented that even though Toby will serve 40 years in prison, his actions and their consequences will unfortunately be felt for much longer by his victims. Finally, Brenda requested the family were afforded their privacy after the whole affair.

Speaking their minds

In February 2018, The Willis Clan decided to speak to The Daily Mail, in order to address the situation they found themselves in, with the scandal eclipsing their family’s music. It was understandably not an easy task, but they nevertheless managed to open up, and let the fans and the world at large hear a little about what they were going through. The interview was released ahead of their upcoming single entitled Speak My Mind, which will be released before their May 2018 tour

Web searches

Thanks to the scandal surrounding father Toby, you won’t find many positive results when searching for the Willis family online. Due to the association with their father and the many stories written about his crimes, the Willis Clan and its music are receiving little to no media coverage. Since the show was canceled, TLC has removed all traces of the Willis family from their website, in an effort to distance the network from the scandal.

On tour

Despite Toby’s conviction and the terrible crimes he has admitted to carrying out, the Willis kids are more determined than ever to reach for the life they have always dreamed of, as performing musicians. As such, the Willis Clan can be observed on many stages throughout the U.S., and are billed to play at the Irish Festival in Ohio in the summer of 2018, in addition to venues in Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Missouri. It won’t be easy, but these kids certainly have the talent to award them a long-lasting career.