Irene Kelley-These Hills
Release 6/17/16 Mountain Fever Records
Available at normal outlets and at Mountain Fever’s Online store
Irene Kelley’s last project, Pennsylvania Coal, was a juggernaut of fresh air (see interview here). Anytime that happens to me, a little hesitation goes with the excitement about the next project. Kelley’s new project, These Hills, released today. I’m no longer hesitant, but the excitement remains.
Her music defies the usual pigeonholes of Bluegrass, Country or Americana. The songs are certainly informed by folk genres, but the results are purely her own. Her voice is at once lilting, contemplative, mournful, expressive and joyful. More Appalachian than straight Bluegrass, she is as comfortable with a ballad as a burner. As a singer, she understands how to emphasize certain words or phrases and carry the listener where she wants to go. As a writer, she understands how to choose words that convey a particular picture or sense. The first tune on the project (Carolina Wind) is a good example of those things. Upon it’s release to radio in April, it went to number one on the Bluegrass Today charts. In fact, it was the top charting tune on their Monthly chart in May. (As I write this, it still remains atop the weekly Roots Music Report.) More than chart success, however, it succeeds as a song. Claire Lynch lends her voice on the chorus which goes like this:
“Out on the horizon, I can see the mountains risin’ and I feel the comfort of a long lost friend, In my soul and in my spirit, I can almost hear it and I know the answer’s waitin’ round the bend, Blowin’ in the Carolina wind.”
The sense of nostalgia is palpable, but it isn’t hollow. It is a longing for home, a less burdened time and comfortable surroundings. Many search for such things, perhaps due to our uncertain times. Though we find that we can’t return, we also realize those memories help us manage the present and lay a course for the future. Kelley’s remembrances always work back around to family and faith and they hold a strength that endures through time and space. As a result, it is extremely uplifting and not leaning toward despair in any way. Don’t mistake my meaning, this is not some Pollyanna viewpoint. Loss, hurt and disappointment are all here, but they are within the context of life- not the be all, end all of it.
Kelley wrote or co-wrote each song on the project with a variety of people including Peter Cooper, Thomm Jutz, Milan Miller & Jon Weisberger. The resulting songs form a collection of snapshot songs from small town, largely Appalachian America. The loss of the coal industry, the memory of home and family, the importance of places (whether hills or hardware stores) in an individual’s life and the companionship of a beloved dog are all ideas expanded here. Listening to Irene sing is essentially having a conversation with an old, dear friend about important matters. It’s a very precious thing.
Lester’s Song was written about her canine buddy, Lester Sharp Kelley, who passed away a few weeks before the CD’s release. If you are an animal person, have a tissue ready. The tears will be bittersweet. Sometimes they really do ‘rescue’ us…
Each one of the 11 cuts is worthy of attention. Multiple listens have proven rewarding. I’m going to list the tracks below. I will also list the ‘supporting cast.’ It really is an astounding list. This is a stellar group of musicians coming together to make some wonderful music. If you are looking for something pure, clear and a bit different , this may be exactly what the doctor ordered. Irene Kelley is one of Nashville’s best kept secrets. Hopefully, that won’t be the case much longer. Listen & tell your friends.
By the way, thanks to Mark Hodges & Mountain Fever Records for adding Irene to the label within the last year!
Producer: Mark Fain, Engineers: Steve Chandler & Mark Fain
Bryan Sutton- Guitar/Clawhammer banjo, Adam Steffey- Mandolin, Scott Vestal-Banjo
Stuart Duncan-Fiddle, Randy Kohrs-Resonator Guitar, Mark Fain- Bass
Harmony Vocals: Claire Lynch, Dale Ann Bradley, Ronnie Bowman, Steve Gulley, Justyna Kelley, Sharon White Skaggs, Cheryl White
Carolina Wind (Kelley-Jutz-Miller)
Coal Train (Kelley-Jutz-Miller)
These Hills (Kelley-Weisberger)
Johnson’s Hardware Store (Kelley-Bowman)
Up in Those Blueridge Mountains (Kelley-Cooper)
Fallin’ Anyway (Kelley-Jutz-Miller)
Lester’s Song (I. Kelly- SJ Kelley)
Leanin’ On the Good Times (Kelley-Weisberger)
Moonlight Is Falling (I Kelley-J Kelley)
Do You Think of Me (Kelley-Smith)
Before You Call Me Home (Kelley-Moody)