One of the best projects from 2014 you may not have heard


(If you listen to bluegrass or roots music, you probably already know what’s coming. If you think Deliverance whenever you hear the word Bluegrass… this post’s for you.. Jump in.)

I’ve been sitting on an interview for a couple of months with someone that you need to know/listen to. I owe credit on this to Juli Thanki, now working at the Tennessean. While she was running the website at that time, she sent me a note about an artist I might be interested in. She was so right. The artist was Irene Kelley and her new CD Pennsylvania Coal was just being released. I have had this project repeatedly in my listening mix ever since. It is ‘real’ music. Stories & snapshots of life, not stretched past believability, played on real instruments and presented by a truly wonderful writer and singer. It is too painstaking to suggest you should listen to this or that track on this CD- they are too even in quality and each has much to offer the listener. Put it in, let it spin and enjoy.

One other note: My wife is not much of a bluegrass fan. I told her to give this CD a try…. I haven’t seen the disc in months. She loves it. That is higher praise than anything I can write.

Here is some of our conversation:

JM: Some people have compared this work and what you do to artists like Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton. I don’t really like to compare artists work to one another, but it helps people who aren’t familiar with you

IK: Yeah, the genres are so broad, so it is somewhat helpful. I don’t mind that comparison, actually- I’m a fan of all those artists

JM: It’s a pretty good draw, no doubt. I was listening again to Pennsylvania Coal this afternoon and there were some moments that reminded me of that first Trio project, which I hadn’t noticed consciously before now.

IK: The last song on the record, that I wrote with my daughters… We were invited to play in Avila Beach, CA in 2005 and we were going to open for Emmylou and I just pictured the 3 of us singing a song together. So, that song, the melody kind of came to me. Later, Justyna (see below about Justyna & Sara) and I were spending time together with Sara in Colorado and we wrote that together while we were traveling. It’s exactly what I had pictured. It’s from that Emmylou/Trio influence.

JM: You can’t beat family harmony.

IK: I had always heard that, but when my girls and I started singing together… There really is something that’s hard to explain. You find yourself breathing in the same places. You can learn somebody else’s diction and phrasing, but when you’re related, it just comes more naturally.

JM: There’s been a lot of buzz about family harmony lately, largely because of the Everly Brothers since Phil’s passing. The breathing and absorption of the other person’s ideas, direction, etc. It’s not something you have to discuss.

IK: Yeah, you don’t have to, it’s innate.

JM: If you had to peg Pennsylvania Coal with 3-4 adjectives, where do you think you would land?

IK: Autobiographical, rootsy & maybe heartfelt. I took my time with it- took me two years. I didn’t want to put out just another record or collection of songs. It was important to have a cohesive product/project. A couple of songs got written at the end- like A Sister’s Heart. I was writing with Jon Weisberger about 2 weeks before recording, and I said “Jon, Mark Fain said we need this certain feel- a minor type of thing, but as far as subject matter goes, there’s only one person close to me that I haven’t written about- that would be my sister.” When my mom passed away, I read the eulogy and I talked about my brothers and my sister. In there I said about her that my mother’s values were reflected in my dear sister’s heart. When I told that to Jon, he said immediately that phrase was the song we were looking for. So, it unfolded late, but fit perfectly.

JM: There are familial things throughout the project. You focus on the PA coal mining families- I’m assuming that you grew up in and around coal mining?

IK: My Grandpa was a miner- on the back of the CD, the miner on the left side on the horse- that’s my grandfather. That’s right before the shift began, apparently, because there’s no coal dust on their faces. He worked in the mine about 2 miles from their farm. So, he’d work in the mine, come home, work the farm. They had 8 kids too. It was depression time and men would hop off the train and come sleep in the barn and my grandmother would make meals for them. Even though they were basically poor, they were still very charitable people.

JM: My dad grew up in a coal mining town & most folks didn’t have much of their own and they all did the same type of work- mining, farming, etc., but they looked after one another too- they fed each other. We seem to be losing some of that. I was reading this week about the different perspective now on middle vs/ working class, which used to be pretty much the same. It’s harder and harder to find people who want to think of skilled labor as a career.

IK: I’m hearing that a lot of places.

JM: This CD has become a good go-to for me. It keeps bringing new things to the surface on multiple listenings, which to me is a mark of a quality project.

IK: That’s really nice.

JM: It’s been so well received in many places.

IK: Yeah, people have been so supportive. Bluegrass Junction got a hold of it and has been playing it. It’s been on this chart and that one. It’s doing well.

JM: I’ve been hearing it fairly regularly on WAMU as well.

IK: That’s great- we went there in May and we did a little interview with Al Steiner. He recorded it and played it later.

JM: You cowrote every tune on the project. I’m guessing some of these tunes may have been around for a while, waiting to find a home. Did you pitch some of these or just hang on to them?

IK: I don’t really hold songs anymore- I used to, but I found that it doesn’t really hold the song back or hold me back by letting someone else record them. I’m always the writer- that doesn’t change. Sometimes people will have heard someone else and then they want to hear ‘the writer’s version’. So that becomes a plus. Now I’m self published and country music has changed so much, so I didn’t hold them, but didn’t concentrate on pitching them either. Because country has changes so much, I’ve found I feel so much more comfortable in the Bluegrass genre. I’ve been telling people that I believe Bluegrass is the last frontier of country music. I listen to country radio, but there’s really nothing there for me, so I find myself back on the bluegrass show or classic country & feeling that;s what I want to listen to & what I want to write & sing also.

JM: Seems like there’s more room to expand there (in bluegrass) now. It’s not just murder ballads & fiddle tunes.

IK: Yeah, there’s such a need for original material. There are some really good songs in the standards, but the genre really needs songwriters. When they get a new song, the community seems to be happy about it. I think Shawn Camp has been writing some really great new stuff & Larry Cordle too. As are Claire Lynch, Jerry Salley & Carl Jackson… I love playing with my friends, but I also love sitting back & listening. We all played together recently. Carl gave me my first cut years ago.

IK: He’s a big part of my whole story. Like I said he recorded that cut and caused me to realize that someone could make a career out of writing songs. It hadn’t occurred to me until then.

JM: You have a wonderful sense of imagery. People can more often put meter and hooks together, but making imagery come to life is both a gift and a talent. Some of your images actually are multisensory in nature. The very first line you sing on the project: “Maybe I’m a passing thought when the woodsmoke’s in the air.” That’s visual, smell, memory all in one phrase. It happens elsewhere on the CD and it’s very powerful. I don’t know how intentional/conscious of that you were in process, but it’s strong.

IK: Well, it worked out that way, but it was intentional too.  When Peter (Cooper) came over that morning to write, I had that image in my mind. The first time I went to Gatlinburg was on my honeymoon. It was cold and all you could smell was woodsmoke. Every time I smell woodsmoke, I think of Gatlinburg, Tennessee now no matter where I am. For me, that was a really strong sense memory. So I said to Peter: “What if we wrote this song about a person’s whose memory is always present with you. You see or smell something that takes you back to a place with them for you. For them, you may not even cross their mind, but you never stop thinking about them. But, on top of that, you’re ok with it- you’re not sad, but sort of celebrating the whole experience.” That’s where that song kind of came from. We meant to use those those images, but we discussed them too, so it was deliberate.

JM When it works, it is so powerful

IK: We didn’t set out to make it that way. I was trying to capture my strong memory of that. Even now 30 years later it remains.

JM: Taking that one step further, a song does the same thing. It can take you back to a time & place where you remember very specific things

IK That’s true- Trisha’s ‘The Song Remembers When”-Hugh Prestwood wrote it. It’s  the best song in the world.

JM:What is something the public can do to help touring artists?

IK: There’s a lot of talk on the internet about streaming & artists giving their art away. Even with Pennsylvania Coal, somehow, someone got a hold of it a week before the release and they were giving away copies in Germany.I would just ask people to not subscribe to those places/sited that undercut and steal from artists.

JM:It takes a lot of time and education

IK: People just don’t think about it, but since you’re asking, when I started writing songs, I never thought about who actually wrote songs that came before. I guess I just assumed they’d always been there. But someone actually actually sits down and creates these songs we hear and that’s how they feed their family, supplement their income, whatever. If someone is using their product to make money, the creator should get part of that. It’s pretty simple.

JM: It’s good that you can self publish now which puts part of that pie back in your pocket, but it also puts all the pressure on you to do everything and to do it well.

IK: Right and I can’t stay out front of everyone like, say, Taylor Swift. I don’t have that kind of machine or money behind me but it is freeing.

1/15: Irene has recently signed with Mountain Fever Records and is working on a new project.

You can purchase Irene’s music in all the usual places. Please check out her website at and from there you can link to her social media pages.

Her daughters, Sara Jean Kelley and Justyna Kelley are writers/singers in their own right and you can find them on social media as well.

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