by Stephen Pitalo
Irene Kelley’s love for country music runs deep. She remembers hearing it for the first time in her dad’s basement TV repair workshop as a young girl. That music in her family home resonated in her soul, so when Irene started writing songs on her own, she already had a head start. At 15, she began her journey as a professional musician in a rock band.
“I started playing music in a band as a sophomore in high school,” Kelley said. “I was a rock band, but I heard Dolly Parton on TV, and switched to country and bluegrass. My first bluegrass band was The Keystone Straights in 1980, and later when I moved to Huntington West Virginia. In 1982, I joined Jerry Williamson and Redwing.”
She found herself fronting the band as the lead singer and playing some pretty big festivals, not the least of which were Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom and Tar Heel Festivals and the Carter Family Homeplace in Bristol, Virginia.
Sara Jean, Justyna & Irene at The Station Inn
“We were also the sound production company, so we had to arrive a day before those festivals and leave the day after,” Kelley recalled. “It was a great experience.”
Irene recalls being at Ralph Stanley’s Hills of Home Festival in McClure, Virginia, and hearing Larry Sparks sing “John Deere Tractor.” It inspired her to use a pay phone at the festival site to call home.
“I got a bunch of change and called my mom and held up the phone and said, ‘Mom, listen to this song. It is so good!’ Also, Jean Ritchie’s songwriting to me was so amazing, especially for someone just learning to write. Some of my other early favorites were Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, Rodney Crowell, Pete Goble, Greg Allman and, of course, always Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.”
Then, Irene Kelley left her native Pennsylvania to move to Nashville in 1984, she brought along her guitar, a handful of original material and a love for traditional and bluegrass music. She signed with MCA Nashville’s country division and was adamant about having Carl Jackson, Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor and other bluegrass musicians join her on her first album. At a time when bluegrass instrumentation had fallen out of favor along Nashville’s Music Row, Irene concentrated on the songwriting that exposed her music to millions through hits for Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White, Loretta Lynn and Trisha Yearwood. More than three decades later, Irene has assumed her place in a long line of great American songwriters.
“I was a Music Row songwriter for 20 years in addition to being a recording artist. I really enjoyed that time, but the business part of it has really changed.”
This past May, Kelley released her second album on Mountain Fever Records, the oddly titled Benny’s TV Repair.
Both musically and spiritually, she is connecting past and present and exploring the themes of love and loss in her life,and never losing sight of where she grew up.
“I’m from Western Pennsylvania,” Kelley explained.
“Coal mining country and lots of trains to move the coal. My grandparents had a working farm in Crabtree, Pa. and I spend a lot of time there and loved it as a kid. My parents were 2nd generation Americans with good work ethics. The way of life, characters, values, and surroundings of my hometown area make for great song lyrics. I think the new record is a true in-depth reflection of all of that.”
Kelley is really enjoying sharing the new record with audiences through live performance, but she also shares her love of music with her children.
Daughter Justyna can be heard on Irene’s 2018 single, “Something About A Train Sound” as well as “Bluegrass Radio” on Kelley’s new album. She also wrote songs on the new record, “Out of Arkansas” and “Anything to Help Your Say Goodbye” specifically, and she also loaned her engineering skills to the project. She partnered with Eddy Gore, working out of RCA Studio B on Music Row, and recently had a song featured on CBS’s NCIS. Younger daughter Sara Jean is a singer/songwriter and a certified yoga instructor, and even works in sketch comedy. Her sound is Americana in the vein of Lucinda Williams and Patti Griffin, having released songs and music videos this year.