Conversation With Irene Kelley

The soul of a songwriter shines in the body of their work. I teach songwriters all the time and even the most beginner songwriter has their heart and soul shimmer somewhere in their creation. When that shimmer comes out like the brightest sun, it could possibly be an Irene Kelley song. This incredibly talented songstress leaves a listener with no doubts about her expertise in telling a story. Not only does she sing like a star, her songs shine like one as well.

Kelley’s unwavering ability to write hit songs shows up in her own radio success and the success of other artists who have recorded her songs; Artists such as Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs, Loretta Lynn and The Osborne Brothers, just to name a few. I have had the very great honor to write with Irene, and she is the real deal; a great writer, a great singer and a great person. I could not be happier to feature her thoughts, heart and soul in this article. I present the great talents of Irene Kelley…enjoy!

1 How old were you when you wrote your first song, and what was the title and the story?
I was 11 years old and it was a song called, “Don’t Talk That Way in Front of Danny”. It was from a mom’s perspective asking her drunk husband, “…don’t talk that way in front of Danny. He’s only seven and he wants to go to heaven without you teaching him to sin…!” My mom was horrified and feared that everyone would think my dad was an abusive drunk. I kept that song to myself & took a few years off of writing…haha. I guess I tried again at the age of 19.

2 Do you remember where you wrote your first song and why?
Sure, I was probably in my bedroom at my parents house in Latrobe, Pa. That was my safe place to make up all kinds of stories and poems. It was my way to express whatever was weighing on my mind. Songwriting can be the therapy that pays YOU! That still holds true.

3 Did you have a great amount of support when you started writing and if so, will you elaborate on who and how?
I would say other than that first attempt at 11, my mom was very supportive in spite of her initial reaction. I would ask her to read my poems and comment. She was good with the English language and helped me with my diction. When I got my first Nashville publisher, Gordon Payne, around 1984. I leaned on him a lot. Gordon was playing in Waylon & Willies band, had written lots of great and successful songs and knew what he was talking about. I really trusted his advice.

4 Name a songwriter that has influenced your writing style and give me an example of this writers composition that still greatly impresses today…a chorus or verse perhaps?
Dolly (Parton) of course. When I think of how she wrote, “Down From Dover”…omg! It is such a chilling story, and a situation that she herself had not even experienced. Now that’s some mind blowing writing.

I know this dress I’m wearing
doesn’t hide the secret I’ve tried concealing
When he left he promised me
he’d be back by the time it was revealing
The sun behind a cloud
just casts the crawling shadow o’er the fields of clover
And time is running out for me,
I wish that he would hurry down from Dover

It goes on to tell of her parents disapproval, her loneliness and fear throughout. And in the end the baby’s father never does show. The baby is delivered still born. Dolly reveals the baby’s gender and message in the song’s last line: “… and dying was her way of telling me, he wasn’t coming down from Dover”. Not to mention the melody! This song packs an emotional story from first line to last. In my mind, it is a real masterpiece!

5 How often do you write these days and is it still something you enjoy?
I don’t keep a regular schedule for writing as much as I once did, but I think I enjoy it more. I have a great group of co-writers that really makes it fun. Writing for a specific project always motivates me, whether for my own or someone else. It’s good to have parameters.

6 What is the most difficult part in the writing process for you and why?
When I don’t have an idea, I can freak myself out and into believing I’ll never come up with one again. Then pow! one appears. Thank you, God!

7 Who do you sing your new songs to before letting artists hear them, and do you heed suggestions for change when you get their feedback?
My daughters, Justyna and Sara Jean, have good ‘ears’ for songs as they are both great songwriters. They are also good at letting me know if I should include a song on my record, or just give it to someone else as the style may not suit me. My good friend and co-writer, Terry Herd, has been paramount in helping me to choose songs for my last three bluegrass records. He is an architect of the genre so he knows his stuff. He is also a grammy award winning songwriter so he has more than the creds to back it up.

8 Where is the strangest place you’ve ever written a song?
I’d say out on the road in some hotel room with no sleep. Seemed strange to me anyway:)

9 Can you describe what you feel when you hear something you’ve written come across the radio?
Oh, this is some kind of thrill that never ever gets old. First I think of how I appreciate the person/DJ who decided to spin the record. Then I imagine who else might be getting to hear it. Are the lyrics moving someone? OMG, what if Bob Dylan is listening!!! Ha ha ha. My imagination runs wild most of the time.

10 I know songwriters have a catalog full of songs waiting to be recorded. What song in your catalog still surprises you, because it hasn’t been recorded yet? And would you mind giving us the lyric to display here?
OOOoooo, that would be several songs but on different days. I am fickle that way. One day one of my songs will hit me and I get that slightly indignant thought like, “Why hasn’t this one been cut by someone.” Then on another day I might second guess that same song a bit. In the end, I do understand that some songs just don’t fit on a record or that artist’s narrative for whatever reason. It helps me to understand another artist’s decision to record or not record something of mine since, as a recording artist I too go through that process.

By Donna Ulisse