Irene Kelley started playing music at 15, and joined her first full time bluegrass band, Redwing, in 1981. By 1984, she was headed to Nashville with her guitar, a handful of original material, and a love for traditional and bluegrass music. Although it was MCA Nashville’s country division that signed her to a record deal, she was adamant about having Carl Jackson, Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor and other bluegrass musicians join her on her first recording project. As she puts it, “The record was country, but the heart and soul was bluegrass.” What followed was a long list of musical accomplishments.
Irene Kelley recently released Benny’s TV Repair, a return to her beginnings, and arguably her finest album to date, and that’s saying a lot. Exploring themes of life, love and loss, Irene weaves the past and present together into a musical and spiritual tapestry on this album, her second release on Mountain Fever Records. “Bluegrass is the last frontier of country music,” Irene said.
And now, Irene celebrates a #1 song on the Grassicana Chart (8.23.19) with “Anything To Help You Say Goodbye,” a tune from the album which Irene penned with her daughter Justyna, and iconic guitarist and songwriter, Steve Cropper.
Americana Rhythm sat down with Irene Kelley for this exclusive Q&A.
AR: Congratulations on your #1 song! How did “Anything To Help You Say Goodbye” come about, and how did Steve Cropper get involved?
IK: Thank you! My daughter, Justyna is partnered with Eddie Gore at RCA Studio C and Steve is also a partner there. We would see Steve at social functions a lot as well as at the studio. I thought Jus might ask him about co-writing with us for my upcoming bluegrass record. Steve was more than happy to find a day for us so we met at the studio and dug in. Justyna said “Steve, mom needs a song for her new bluegrass record.” Steve scratched his head and said, “Well, I don’t have bluegrass chops but I have bluegrass thoughts”! We all laughed for a bit and that set the tone for a great writing day. By the end of 2 1/2 hours, the 3 of us had a completed version of “Anything To Help You Say Goodbye,” and had started a second song. Steve was kind enough to play the intro guitar on the album track. If you notice, it’s not at all the melody but is every ounce ‘Steve Cropper’ and totally appropriate to the song. I just love having him on there as a musician as well as a co-writer.
AR: Tell us a bit more about the album.
IK: Benny’s TV Repair is an album of 11 original bluegrass songs on which I had the incredible help of some of my favorite co-writers. These songs are very personal to me and my hope is that folks will find their own stories within them. I do get the best comments when I am out touring and someone might come up to me and say, “My dad had a TV repair shop, too” or “We had a guy like Cabbage Head in our home town, too.” That is what makes it all worthwhile for me. Plus, I get to honor some people who have made a huge impact on my life.
AR: What is it like co-writing and collaborating with your daughter?
IK: Writing with this amazing young woman is fun, inspiring and has me bursting with pride all at once. I know what an incredible talent she is, and this record has given me a chance to show her amazing gifts to the rest of that world. Justyna brought some melody ideas that I would never have thought of in a million years. Her contributions are immense. She is also a great singer with perfect pitch, and her help in the studio was and is irreplaceable.
AR: Your songwriting career has spanned decades. How do you compare writing for others with recording your own songs?
IK: I have been a staff songwriter for some of the top publishing companies in Nashville spanning 30 plus years. I really enjoyed being a part of that genre-shaping scene. Some incredible artists have recorded my songs and that is always an honor for me. However, writing for myself and my own records is a bit different. I have to go out and sing those songs every night so they have to resonate with me in order for me to be able to be real. I believe bluegrass gives a little extra room in that department. The instrumentation in bluegrass suits my voice pretty well too.
AR: How does it feel when a song finally comes to life in a recorded project?
IK: It just never gets old hearing a song I’ve written and/or recorded on the radio. It’s just so gratifying, whether the performance is my own or another artist.
Benny’s TV Repair is available now on Mountain Fever Records. Learn more about the artist at www.irenekelley.com.