Saturday, June 30, Nashville’s Irene Kelley will perform for Flying Cat Music at the Empire State Railway Museum (ESRM). The ESRM is located at 70 Lower High Street in Phoenicia. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. and music begins at 7:30. Admission is $17 or $15 with reservations. For information or reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 845-688-9453.
Irene Kelley is a musical treasure who, while standing in bright sunlight, still is largely out of sight. Bluegrass Today writes, “For years Irene Kelley has been one of the best kept secrets in Nashville, weaving her magic into song after song for artists like Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Loretta Lynn, Rhonda Vincent, Carl Jackson, Claire Lynch, Pure Prairie League, the Osborne Brothers and others.” Music Row Magazine says, “As a songwriter, she shines with a luster that few of her peers can match.” Nashville Scene reverently notes this regarding Irene Kelley: “Appalachian angels still walk among us.”
Kelly released two albums of her own in 2000 and 2004. She then took a recording break while continuing to write hits for others. That changed in 2014 with her release of Pennsylvania Coal. No Depression wrote of it: “Kelley’s first new collection in more than ten years offers a chance to celebrate the golden artistry of Kelley’s brilliant songwriting even as the music wends its way into our hearts and mind.” The Washington Post offered this: “The title track of Irene Kelley’s handsome new album, “Pennsylvania Coal,” pays tribute to her grandparents’ struggles in a mining town outside Pittsburgh. The veteran country songwriter has since relocated to Nashville, where she’s penned songs for Trisha Yearwood and Alan Jackson, but on this bluegrass-tinged album, she’s telling her own stories with great clarity and warmth.”
2016 saw the release of Irene Kelley’s latest album, These Hills, to overwhelmingly positive reviews like these: “The best album of the year has to be ‘These Hills.’ So good and so classy in every way, it rivals Alison Krauss at her very best. I’m so glad Irene Kelley’s grass is blue.” Country Music People
“Kelly possesses a nearly flawless, archetypal contemporary bluegrass voice that would also work smashingly in Americana, country, or folk… This is a truly lovely album that demands repeated listening, like the six consecutive times I did. It may well be the finest contemporary bluegrass release of the year.” Bluegrass Unlimited
“These Hills is a study in excellence on so many levels, lyrically, instrumentally and vocally. But more importantly, it possesses that undefinable element of magic that serves as the catalyst of a truly great record. A lifetime in the making, These Hills is already a classic.” Bluegrass Today
Peter Cooper, who was senior music writer at The Tennessean in Nashville for years, as well as a Grammy nominated Singer Songwriter and Producer in his own right, has this to say about Irene Kelley: “Irene is nothing like much of what we hear, and something like most of what we seek. Her voice has a break to it, and in that break I hear truth and love and the places where truth and love come to fragile reconciliation.”
Irene Kelley sings in the vein of Emmylou Harris, with echoes of Nancy Griffith, and a dash of Dolly Parton. Irene was asked to leave the Led Zeppelin cover band she fronted in high school (she had the range to hit Robert Plant’s high-pitched vocals) when she tried to introduce some Parton covers to their mix. Rock’s loss was Country’s gain.
Finding Irene Kelley’s music today–seeing her perform it live–is like getting to board a train that seemingly long since left the station. It’s a pleasure to discover that you haven’t missed that ride. Country music (and Bluegrass also) was once a more intimate affair. Before being hyped as “America’s Music” its sound filled small town honkytonks and spilled out of VFW halls. None of its stars did arena tours. Back before the corporate makeover, Nashville was true to its storytelling soul. Now though, when glitz regularly replaces grit and true grace is sacrificed to glamour, the roots of Country often seem shallow.
Irene Kelley isn’t unique in keeping the soul of Country alive. Giants like Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris still stand tall on festival stages, but they no longer play small rooms and some of the intimacy inevitably gets lost. Scattered, unsung songwriters tell their tales at open mics, but that’s a hard road to travel and few stay on it long enough to reach the Grand Ole Opry. Irene Kelley has by now performed in Nashville’s greatest hall, but in the preceding years Nashville knew her for the poignant songs she penned. Like Carole King of a former day, Irene’s skill as a singer was initially overshadowed by her songwriting talent. But as the world eventually discovered, Carole King could deliver the goods herself and so can Irene Kelley. Irene mostly still does this in small and intimate spaces. For that her audiences are blessed.
Irene Kelley will be accompanied at this show by Matt Menefee on banjo and mandolin. Matt Menefee is one of the premier banjo virtuosos and innovators of our time. At age 17, never having competed before, Matt won both the Texas State and the National Banjo Championships. He went on to co-found the influential progressive bluegrass band Cadillac Sky.