Irene Kelley talks songwriting, bluegrass, family, and more

Irene Kelley – photo by Jason Lee Denton

Irene Kelley’s love of music has been imbued in her memory practically from the very beginning. She became wholly entranced by it while hearing it for the first time in her dad’s basement TV repair shop as a young girl. After hearing it around the house, the music became so imbued in her soul that she began writing music early on, and joined her first band at the age of 15.

In 1981, she made her big career leap when she was invited to join the bluegrass band, Redwing, as lead singer. She soon found herself performing at any number of major festivals, and gaining major traction in the process. Her move to Nashville in 1984 added increased momentum and she was soon signed to MCA Nashville, for whom she recorded her first album, which featured an all-star line-up in the persons of Sam Bush, Carl Jackson, and Mark O’Connor. Irene also found success as a songwriter, penning songs for the likes of Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White, Loretta Lynn, and Trisha Yearwood. 

Nevertheless, despite her accomplishments, her devotion to the basics of bluegrass remained first and foremost. With early influences that include Jean Ritchie, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, Rodney Crowell, Pete Goble, Greg Allman, Dolly Parton, and Loretta Lynn. These days, Irene is carrying the torch forward, not only through her own efforts, but that of her daughters as well, all of whom joined her for her recent holiday LP, Kelley Family Christmas.

Bluegrass Today recently had the pleasure of sharing a sit-down, in-person interview with her prior to a stellar performance with her trio at The Shed in Louisville, TN.

Irene, it’s wonderful to see you again. How are things?

I’m great. Yeah, we’ve just… this is our last of three shows this weekend. We started out in McLure, VA, playing the Ralph Stanley Hills of Home festival, which for me was a huge deal, because the first time I played it was in 1982. It was a was really a great experience. It was  good to be with there with Ralph II. He was there and he hosted us. I’ve got a really great band with me — Brad Beige, Kelsey Crews, and Thomas Cassell. Yesterday, we played in Gatlinburg and here we are tonight.

You’re based in Nashville, are you not?

I am. I’ve been there for almost 40 years now. I came from Western Pennsylvania and I settled there. Plus, I just got back from Europe. Justina, my daughter, is there a lot. She lived there for four years. And she’s still going back and forth. We collaborate on so many things. She co-produced my last record, Snow White Memories. She sang a lot of the harmony parts and mixed the vocals, and she’s really multi-talented. She started putting notes out to folks in Europe in order to try to get me booked over there because she wanted me to come hang out. I said I don’t want to go unless I’m playing. So she got us some dates.

We had big fun. We played a bluegrass festival in Germany, which was beautiful. Carlton Moody lives near Paris and he’s a great musician. He’s one of the Moody Brothers. His dad was Clyde Moody. Carlton played with him and Doc Watson for years. He was booking Euro Disney and so he and his wife just stayed over there, and that’s where he raised their kids. He’s such a great point of reference in terms of  networking over there because if we need another fiddle player, he knows who to call. He knows all the great guys. So we were able to add a couple pickers on a couple of the other dates.

Germany in particular seems to have a great respect for bluegrass. 

Well, the interesting thing is that next to the United States, Germany has the second most bluegrass listeners, which is fascinating. They are such roots music fans. I was surprised. I had like a whole pile of CDs that I brought over and I thought, oh gosh, I’m gonna have to drag them all back. But I sold every one of them. I should have brought more, but how do you know? In the States, people go, “Well, I’d really like to buy your CD but my car doesn’t have a CD player anymore.” I hear that over and over again.

Regardless, bluegrass has become so universal. It’s a real populist form of expression.

Yeah, I love that. I mean, I started with it. That was my first musical genre. And then I got into country, and somehow came back around to it. It was just because I think country kind of left me out when it got more like pop music. But my songs would translate to the bluegrass instrumentation, even though some of it was really country-like, even when I was on MCA Records in 1989. I was working on a country record, but I insisted that we have Carl Jackson on acoustic guitar, Jerry Douglas on the dobro, and Mark O’Connor on fiddle… and Sam Bush. They were like, “I don’t know. Who are these guys?” I’m like, “Are you kidding me?”

So the heart and soul was bluegrass, and then we put in the electric instruments, and it worked. The Whites were kind of doing that same sort of thing. But then you fast forward to, like early 2000s or the late ’90s, early 2000, when country was getting too pop-ish, and I felt like the last frontier was bluegrass,

It’s kind of a compliment to you that you recognized that fact. 

George Jones had trouble before he passed getting  played. But now, within the newer formats on satellite radio, it’s a whole different thing because you have these, ’60s and ’70s and ’80s playlists. It’s great. You can just go through there and find all all the great old vintage songs.

So what do you think accounts for this newfound popularity of bluegrass nowadays? It’s attracting so many younger listeners, as opposed to folks that were strictly into the traditional sounds. Now you have so many artists that have helped make it a modern phenomenon. What do you think is drawing people to  it?

You’ve got it the undeniable Billy Strings, and the undeniable Molly Tuttle and Sierra Hull, and they’re young, and they’re exciting, and they’re confident, and I think that’s really appealing. And it’s compelling. So the younger people are paying attention and it’s not just party music like a lot of the kids used to listen to. There’s a lot lyrically, and it matters. They’re starting to pay attention. So that’s just happening. Maybe because there isn’t the real country or whatever was once playing on the radio stations that they got used to listening to, and it’s just that there’s nothing there for them, and they started looking somewhere else. I know that if I hear like an uptempo bluegrass song, it makes me want to clog dance.

It’s a very communal form of music-making. It’s relatively easy to play. Plus, you can sit around a campfire and jam and everybody feels welcome, whether you’re a beginner or a professional.

That’s true. Yeah. That might be part of the reason. 

One of the things that’s so lovely about your music is that it conjures up such vivid imagery. It really takes you to a specific place. I’m referring specifically to your single, Wild Mountain Stream.

I wrote that with Billy Droze and Terry Herd. They’re two of my favorite writers. My buddies.

Terry Herd is the esteemed publisher of our very own Bluegrass Today.

Yeah, he’s all over the place. He’s a songwriter, a journalist, and a DJ. I always tell him he’s a bluegrass architect as well. I spend a lot of time in the Smoky Mountains, as much as I can. And, it’s got all the great streams going through. So that’s where that came from. It’s not on the latest album, but it’s going to be on a future album, which I haven’t even started yet. I’m so far behind. 

You also have a new single, correct?

I  just did a single with the Kruger Brothers. It’s a song I wrote with Bobby Starnes called Coal Dust. And it’s basically the story of my grandfather who migrated from Poland. My grandmother did as well. My grandpa was 17 when he got to the states, and he never went back, never saw his family again, and then married my grandma when she was 15. They bought a farm in Pennsylvania and raised eight kids. He worked in the coal mine during the day and and also tended to the farm. So you have the new single. Right.

Is this a lead up to a new album?

Slowly, because we put out Snow White Memories a year and a half ago. So I’m a little bit slower this time. There’s a lot of other stuff going on in my life. Songwriting and all good stuff. 

Your Kelley Family Christmas album was just so beautiful. And it gave you a chance to work with your daughters. You performed all these classic holiday songs and stayed so true to the spirits of the originals.

You can’t reinvent the wheel. It’s already there. They’re so intricate, and the harmony parts are like jazz parts on some of those. We had to really work on that and it wasn’t an easy thing. Even though we’re all singers, we’re mostly lead singers. But it was fun. It got us whipped into shape.

So did you encourage them, discourage them, leave them alone when they said they wanted to follow in your footsteps?

They never really said that. They just kind of snuck in and did it. And I was like, “Well, I’m here for you,” and I said I’d support them when they both finished college. I thought they were gonna go into some other direction, but they just love the arts and they’re both really talented and they have a lot to contribute.

There’s nothing like family harmony.

You know, it’s funny. I heard that for years. And then when I started singing with the girls, I thought, I get what everybody’s saying. It’s like intuitive. We breathe in the same spots when we’re singing together. When you sing with somebody else, you have to kind of watch them and know and anticipate, but when you’re related, you just do it without looking at each other. It’s so cool. I just put my vocal on and then we got the harmony on there. I think Justyna is gonna sing one of the harmony parts on the new record when she gets back from France next week.

So what are your future plans as far as touring is concerned?

I’ve got a few things coming up. Let’s see. I’m going to Colorado to play a songwriter festival, and I’m going to give a workshop there, which I’m looking forward to. I’ll get to talk about the craft and the finer points of songwriting, hopefully give people some tools for their toolbox.

You can keep up with all things Irene Kelley online.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.