Chances are you knew Irene Kelley’s work before you knew her as an artist. That’s because her original songs have been recorded by everyone from Alan Jackson, Loretta Lynn, and Trisha Yearwood to Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White and Pure Prairie League, just to mention a few. The uncanny ability to crystalize a heartfelt idea into the fewest words needed to tell a story, and weave it together with an infectious melody, is her calling card. While her recordings contain layer upon layer of instrumental and vocal complexity, the end result is seamless and simple, as are the lyrics that, at times, flow as easily as a casual conversation between friends.
Kelley grew up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania and was first introduced to music by her father, Benny, who frequently played accordion and guitar on the local radio station and at family gatherings. She recalls that his repertoire contained a heavy dose of Jimmie Rodgers classics. It was his appreciation for traditional country and bluegrass that first caught her ear as a youngster. One day, while spending time with her father in his basement TV repair shop, she heard Dolly Parton for the first time on the radio, and her world would never be the same. Soon she began playing guitar and eventually joined a few local groups, including a Led Zeppelin cover band. Long story short – what happens when you show up at the Zeppelin gig with a Dolly Parton record and suggest the band try a few country songs? Kelley says the awkward feeling in the room that afternoon was confirmed with a call later on notifying her she was no longer needed.
It’s only fitting that Irene Kelley has come to release her strongest project to date, one that pays homage to her roots and to the love for music that her father “Benny” instilled in her heart all those years ago. Officially released May 10th on Mountain Fever Records, Benny’s TV Repair is an album of sparkling original bluegrass gems. Make no mistake, this is dyed-in-the-wool, rock solid, no-holds-barred bluegrass at its very finest, featuring some of the top musicians in the business. Players include Bryan Sutton, Adam Steffey, Stuart Duncan, Mark Fain, and Matt Menefee. Add to that list a host of who’s who in the industry guesting on various tracks and…well, you get the idea.
From the opening kick of Something About A Train Sound, a burner co-authored with friends Billy Droze and Terry Herd, it’s evident Irene is not only in her element, she’s re-defining a refreshing sound in bluegrass that honors and respects tradition. Just listen to the conversation between Duncan’s fiddle and Menefee’s mesmerizing banjo work, which is nothing short of magical. Or the beautiful harmony blend contributed by Jimmy Fortune together with Irene’s daughter, Justyna Kelley.
Kelley’s voice is unique and powerful, and the quality engineering that captured it here earns a tip of the hat to Eddie Gore and the team at Eddie & Justy Productions at RCA Studio C in Nashville, as well as to renowned engineer Steve Chandler, who was also behind the controls of the genre defining Rounder 0044 JD Crowe & The New South release of the mid-70’s.
Radio confirmed its approval by sending this first single straight to the top of the Bluegrass Today weekly and monthly airplay charts, where it held the #1 spot for 3 consecutive months – and it’s by no means her first appearance on the bluegrass charts. Carolina Wind, a song she co-wrote with Milan Miller and Thomm Jutz from her previous release These Hills (also on Mountain Fever Records), has become the most played song on bluegrass radio since Bluegrass Today began tracking radio airplay nearly 8 years ago.
Benny’s TV Repair is the title track that beautifully honors Kelley’s father and tells the story in a way that every dad would be proud to have been remembered. Heartfelt lyrics accompanied by the rich harmony vocals of Wayne Southards and Dale Ann Bradley transport the listener back to a simpler place and time.
Her second single, Bluegrass Radio, co-authored with longtime friend Jerry Salley, is a tribute to the DJ’s who keep bluegrass music alive on the airwaves. Throughout this track, as well as the entire record, you’ll hear pieces of Irene’s historical bluegrass DNA referenced: “…nothing like a Carter Stanley song to satisfy my sentimental bone, that high and lonesome sound I grew up on, keeping me company everywhere I go.” Bluegrass Radio hit #1 in April this year, and became her second #1 single on the Bluegrass Today monthly chart, even before the full project was released.
Thunderbird, a song Irene co-authored with Billy Smith and covered from her 2006 release of the same title, is the third and current single from the project. In keeping with the continuity of the other offerings on the album, Irene brought her A game, along with the A-team of players, to present a truly breathtaking bluegrass rendition of this beautiful ode to Native American heritage.
So where exactly does great songwriting like this come from? For starters: natural talent, intelligence, a deep love of music and a rich understanding of the genre, the ability to discern between good, bad and great, and yes, practice. In short, paying your dues and sharpening your God-given talent to a razor’s edge. Kelley has all those boxes checked and more, including two decades as a Music Row songwriter, where she not only wrote or co-wrote a number of hit songs, she became an integral part of the fabric of the Nashville music scene. In so doing, she befriended some of the top talent in the industry.
One of those friends invited to join in the new project was none other than Steve Cropper, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame guitarist, iconic member of the Blues Brothers and author of Otis Redding’s mega hit, Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay. When asked to co-write on her upcoming bluegrass project, Cropper purportedly said, “Well, I don’t have bluegrass chops, but I have bluegrass thoughts!” And indeed he does. Those thoughts (and chops) ring loud and true on Kelley’s inspired rendition of Anything To Help You Say Goodbye, which features Cropper’s signature guitar playing in the opening verse and throughout. The song is an original that Kelley co-authored with Steve and her daughter Justyna.
The opening minor key banjo intro of Hills of Home invokes a sense of longing beautifully expressed in the lyrics Kelley penned with Ronnie Bowman, who also lends haunting harmonies to the track. Hills of Home also happens to be the name of Dr. Ralph Stanley’s memorial festival held every year at the Hills of Home park near the Stanley home in Coeburn, VA. Kelley performed as a teenager with her band, Jerry Williamson & Redwing, and recounts being moved to tears that day and using the only phone booth on the park grounds to share the moment with her mother when one of her heroes took the stage: “Mom, it’s Renie, listen, Larry Sparks is playing and it’s so incredible [holds the receiver up in the air]…can you hear it?”… “Yes honey, kinda” her mother responded in an effort to show support.
Bowman’s vocals can also be heard on Highway Back To You, a beautiful bluegrass love song, with lyrics penned by Kelley and David Starr, that laments love lost, but not forgotten.
Many of Kelley’s songs are based on true stories or experiences. Such is the case with Cabbage Head, a semi-true tale her aunt shared with her about a young boy she knew decades ago. In true life, the story had a tragic ending when the special needs youngster drowned while trying to prove to his not so empathetic friends that he could swim. Together with co-writer Bobby Taylor, Kelley re-created the story to transform “Cabbage Head” into a town hero, and brand his nickname in a positive light for the ages.
No stranger to personal tragedy herself, as a teenager, Kelley was the only survivor when the vehicle she was riding in with her two best friends spun out of control on Route 711. The pain of that terrible loss was the inspiration for the title, Faster Than Angels Could Fly, an uptempo number that memorializes the freedom of youthfulness and an all too fleeting sense of immortality. Darrin and Brooke Aldridge lend background harmonies on this track, co-authored with renowned songwriter and radio broadcaster Bill Whyte, who also contributed co-writing success to the final track, a beautiful Gospel song entitled Walk With Me Today.
Lastly, Out of Arkansas is a touching tribute Kelley co-authored with her daughter Justyna. It was inspired by the loss of a brand new puppy the two had transported from Arkansas that soon after succumbed to complications related to parvo. Focusing the heartbreak and loss of a beloved pet into a fictional song about a young girl escaping a bad situation, Out of Arkansas tells a tale many can identify with.
As bluegrass recordings go, it’s rare to find an album that charts a number one song. Rarer still to have multiple #1s that hold out for numerous weeks and months at a time. Benny’s TV Repair accomplished that feat before the CD was even released. Now that the completed project is on store shelves and available on all online and streaming sites, what next? For starters, it’s my pick for the bluegrass Grammy. Benny’s TV Repair is simply one of the finest examples of bluegrass songwriting and performance this writer has heard in recent times. In short, it’s a must have. Kudos to Irene Kelley and everyone involved!
The album is available to bluegrass DJ’s through AirPlay Direct, and online from iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby and other top download and streaming sites.