Four years ago, just before her 40th birthday, Kelly’s voice gave out near the end of a weekly gig with her band, Acoustic Endeavors.
She’d being singing for years and had sore throats and other vocal issues over the years, so she wasn’t worried. She figured her voice would be back to normal in no time.
She figured wrong.
Her voice problems worsened and a couple of months ago, after listening to playbacks of studio recordings with bandmate and life partner Warren Amberson, Kelly reached the hardest decision of her life. It was time to walk away from the microphone.
“For the good of the band, it’s time to do something different, which is very, very hard to do after 22 years,” she said in a recent interview.
In the past, Warren remembered, “She just opened her mouth and good things came out. It’s not like that any more.”
Kelly has spasmodic dysphonia, a relatively rare neurological disorder that causes vocal chord tremors that make clear speech difficult and uncontrollable. Unlike muscular dysphonia, the kind that Tony Rice has, there is no cure or therapy that can reverse the course. Botox injections help sometimes, but only for a short while.
She’s hoping – the whole band is hoping – that the latest injection will leave her in good enough voice to finish the Roanoke, VA-based band’s latest CD, Old 22. But since that might not be doable, she and Warren are scouring earlier studio sessions to find snippets here and there of Kelly in good voice. “Sometimes, it’s one phrase at a time,” Warren said. “We’re listening for good things that we can keep.”
Like anyone who deals with a life-changing medical condition, Kelly experienced a lot of “why me?” moments early on after she was diagnosed by specialists at Wake Forest. “You cry and you think, man, why did this have to happen to me?”
On the first ride back from Wake Forest, she thought of things she would rather endure. “You could cut off my pinky toe. You could break my leg in half,” she said. “You could do it over and over to me a hundred times instead of this.”
With time, though, came acceptance. Sure, she wishes the outcome could be different but she’s grateful for what she had a chance to do. “I’ve got a lot of very supportive people around me,” she said. “We got to do some really great, incredible things. We’ve got great recordings of my voice. We’ve had great experiences. We got to do really cool things and it was because of music.”
>And she’s still thinking of ways she can help the band, including booking and working on social media. “I can be the best damned cheerleader for the band you’ve ever seen,” she told me. “And I still think I have a lot of tunes in me that are worth writing. And who knows, right now I’m not a very good lead guitar player. Maybe I’m supposed to turn into the best lead guitar player this side of Danville.”
While Kelly is starting to come to terms with the likelihood that her singing days are over, it’s still tough for her bandmates, especially Warren.
“We went through all the stages that one can go through when you realize this isn’t going to get better,” he said. “There’s no one in the world I’d rather play with. My music is 100 times better when Kelly is with me.”
The band will continue, with John Miller stepping in on guitar and vocals. Warren described it as an interim arrangement that can be as permanent as John wants to make it.
John’s presence would bring the band full circle, in a way. His late brother, Eddie, played with Acoustic Endeavors years ago when the band was based in Nashville.
Kelly was insistent that the band continue. Everything else is fluid. “We’re trying to figure it out as we go,” Warren said.
Kelly sees herself as an ambassador for the disorder, perhaps able to help others cope with difficulty talking.
She’s also a reminder of the fleeting nature of life, of not taking things for granted. Her difficult four-year journey has helped Warren appreciate that. “If we had to lay the instruments down today and never play again, we’ve had wonderful memories,” he said.
They were fortunate enough to play and see parts of the world they might not have seen without the music.
And we’re fortunate, too. Kelly says she still hears her real singing voice, the one that’s gone now, in her head. We can still hear it, too, strong and pure, on some wonderful recordings.