Music News & Reviews

Songwriter started with Led Zeppelin but leans more Loretta Lynn

Singer and songwriter Irene Kelley will make her Festival of the Bluegrass debut this weekend.
Singer and songwriter Irene Kelley will make her Festival of the Bluegrass debut this weekend.

Irene Kelley

6 p.m. June 8 as part of the Festival of the Bluegrass at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground, 4089 Iron Works Parkway. $10-$55. 859-253-0806. festivalofthebluegrass.com

As a musically eager teenager coming of age in a modestly sized Pennsylvania town, Irene Kelley found herself in the middle of two family camps.

Her siblings were fascinated by rock ‘n’ roll, which eventually inspired the then 15-year-old Kelley to become the lead singer of a Led Zeppelin cover band. But her father, a television repairman, had traditional country songs playing on the radio of his basement shop. That gave Kelley the idea of asking her Zep-loving bandmates to try a cover of a Dolly Parton song.

The idea went over like a lead you-know-what and got her kicked out of the band.

Today, as a veteran Nashville songwriter whose traditional musical urges take her to bluegrass, Kelley makes no secret about which camp won out. This weekend, as she makes her debut at the Festival of the Bluegrass, she will show just how deep those traditional roots run.

“I lived in the very small town of Latrobe,” Kelley said. “I had older siblings that were listening to rock ‘n’ roll and The Beatles. My parents, of course, were into Merle Haggard and country music. On Saturday night, they always had the TV on for the country music shows.

“Eventually, some folks from West Virginia cleared up the local music store and put on a bluegrass festival. I got to meet some of the bands that were out of the Pittsburgh area. One artist in particular, Bernie Cunningham of the Dog Run Boys, gave me a cassette tape of Claire Lynch’s music. He said, ‘You need to listen to her. You two are sisters from different mothers.’

After taking to the music of bluegrass songstress Lynch, and eventually recordings by longstanding mavericks of the genre like Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice, Kelley was lured away from Pennsylvania to join the West Virginia bluegrass band Red Wing. The group doubled as the sound company for such bluegrass summits as Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom and Ralph Stanley’s Hills of Home Festival.

“I met so many great players through that, as well. I got to see (acclaimed fiddler and studio musician) Stuart Duncan when he was 17 years old and playing in a band out of California. He ended up playing on all of my records. From there, I sought people out with whom I felt kindred to in what they were playing. I wanted to be in that company. I was creating music around that. It just felt right. Then I moved to Nashville and started to do country music.”

After signing to MCA Records, Kelley released two singles, although a debut album for the label was shelved. While her own recording career may have taken time to click with labels and audiences, her songwriting was a quick hit. Through the years, her works have been covered by Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White, Trisha Yearwood and Loretta Lynn.

“I always lean toward the more traditional music. But I often co-write with writers who were maybe be a little more on the pop side. When I write for my own records, when I know I want to go out and perform those songs live, it’s more traditional and more bluegrass, really. It’s really nice just to be able to do what I enjoy doing. I don’t have to write with anything in mind but what I want to put on my record.”

Kelley’s newest album is something of a family affair. The title, “Benny’s TV Repair,” is a broad nod to her father while her band, on record as well as on the road, includes daughter Justyna as a harmony vocalist and occasional co-writer.

“She’s so much fun to travel with,” mother Kelley said. “We write a lot together. She’s got great ideas. She’s tech savvy and just has so much talent, ability and skill. And her songwriting is just incredible. She has melody ideas I wouldn’t even think about. I always enjoy working with her.”

Kelley hasn’t totally abandoned her rock ‘n’ roll preferences, though. Veteran Booker T and the MGs guitarist Steve Cropper co-wrote a song with the singer and her daughter on the new album called “Anything That Helps You Say Goodbye.” He added a few licks of decidedly country sounding electric guitar, even though the song itself retains a vivid bluegrass feel.

“Today’s bluegrass fan community is pretty smart. They’re not going to listen to something that’s someone’s trying to get over on them. They pick up on that pretty quick and gravitate to the genuine music. That’s what I love about the genre, too. It’s not the biggest genre of music there is, but it sure is passionate.”

For a full Festival of the Bluegrass performance schedule, go to festivalofthebluegrass.com/lineup.html.

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