Ruston Kelly has one of those back stories so strange you couldn’t make it up. Born in South Carolina Kelly's early childhood was fragmented as his dad worked in paper mills and travelled often for work, so every couple of years the family upped sticks. In his early teens Kelly hoped for a career in figure skating, so he moved to Michigan and joined an Olympic coaching team, which proved to be a very tough and lonely existence. Those dreams didn’t pan out, but with the music of Jackson Browne and his dad’s old guitar for company, the songwriting seed was sown. It wasn’t until his senior year in high school that he discovered The Carter Family and Johnny Cash in, of all places, the Belgium city of Brussels that things really started to click. At seventeen he returned to the USA and moved in with his sister in Nashville. Eventually, in 2013 a publishing deal was signed and Kelly placed songs with Josh Abbott and Tim McGraw — that helped pay the rent — before he snagged his own record deal and released the ‘Halloween’ EP in 2017 to impressive reviews.
Ruston Kelly lays all his cards on the table with his debut album ‘Dying Star’ a record that can be reflective and romantic but will switch on a dime to display darker emotions with harrowing candour. Since his arrival in Nashville, things haven’t always been plain sailing with time spent in rehab and an overdose in early 2016 highlighting his personal struggles. On ‘Dying Star’ Kelly embraces these demons, puts them firmly in the rear-view and moves on with an impressive set of songs influenced by those early Jackson Browne and Johnny Cash records — with a dash of Ryan Adams thrown in for good measure — performed by a guy who sports Slayer T-Shirts in his videos. This should tell you all you need to know about Ruston Kelly.
Opening with the wistful reflection of ‘Cover My Tracks’ Ruston Kelly seems to be in a good place experiencing the “Golden Years” via a lovingly produced, multi-layered vocal that envelops the listener. Kelly and co-producer Jarred K (Kate Nash / Weezer) do a fine job here, the backing vocal performances and placements are frankly glorious. One listen to the vocoder drenched acapella intro to ‘Son Of A Highway Daughter’ and I guarantee you’ll be sold on Ruston Kelly and ‘Dying Star’
Kelly displays an interesting approach to those personal demons, ‘Faceplant’ (written with Jarred K and Brendan Benson) takes a jet-black comedic approach “She’s probably gonna be pissed, throw my shit in the yard, key my car, if I show up like this” to the strains of wailing harmonica while ‘Blackout’ finds that harmonica at its most mournful and Kelly seemingly at the bottom of a barrel full of alcohol and illicit substances “I dumb down my head so I can’t feel my heart.
The epic sprawl of ‘Big Brown Bus’ highlights the contribution of Tim Kelly (Ruston’s dad) on pedal steel. Kelly Snr plays an essential part in the success of ‘Dying Star’ with his playing to the fore on much of the album including the stunning ‘Jericho’ co-written with Joy Williams (The Civil Wars). Williams is among the contributors to the backing vocals that give the album much of its heart alongside Natalie Hemby. Kelly’s sister Abby Sevigny and wife Kacey Musgraves are among those who also contribute to the angelic choir making ‘Dying Star’ a family affair. On an album full of highlights the gorgeous title track takes the gold as the instrumentation, Kelly’s songwriting and the exemplary production all gel beautifully into something very special indeed.
‘Dying Star’ begins in a reflective mood, deals with its issues and ultimately looks to be ending in some sort of redemption. With this in mind, I’ll leave the final word to Mr Kelly.