Irene remembers first hearing country music in her dad’s basement TV Repair workshop as a girl. That music in her family home resonated in her soul, so when Irene started writing songs, she already had a head start. At 15, she began her journey as a professional musician in a rock band.
Bringing a Dolly Parton album to rehearsal to have the band learn a few of those songs to cover would get Irene fired on the spot. It was, perhaps, the best thing that happened to her.
Fast forward to 1981 when Jerry Williamson asked her to move to Huntington, WV to join the bluegrass band Redwing. She found herself fronting the band as lead singer and playing some big festivals, not the least of which were Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom, Tarheal and Carter Family Homeplace in Bristol.
Her love for the music runs deep. Around the time she started her bluegrass career, Irene recalls being at Ralph Stanley’s McClure, VA festival, and hearing Larry Sparks sing “John Deere Tractor.” She recalls that it prompted 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!’
I was just so excited and had to share with my mom. A little homesick too, no doubt. All of that experience had such a big influence on my musical life. So much rich inspiration for a fledgling songwriter.”
She still shares that excitement, now with her children. In fact, daughter Justyna just got done adding a harmony part on Irene’s latest single, “Something About A Train Sound.” “A friend of mine said, ‘this is just like the old days, when your kids would help you on the farm,’” Irene says. “But, you’re farming music.”
When 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 was signed to MCA Nashville country division and was adamant about having Carl Jackson, Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor and other bluegrass musicians join her on her first recording project. As she puts it, “The record was country, but the heart and soul was bluegrass.” But, it was a time when bluegrass instrumentation had fallen out of favor down along Nashville’s Music Row, and so Irene concentrated on the songwriting that put her music in front of millions through hits like “A Little Bluer Than That,” for Alan Jackson, as well as songs performed and recorded by 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. She singles out Jean Ritchie, saying, “Jean’s songwriting to me was so amazing, especially for someone just learning to write. Some of my other early influences were Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, Rodney Crowell, Pete Goble, Greg Allman and, of course, always Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.”
Her latest project is a return to her beginnings. “Bluegrass is the last frontier of country music,” Irene says. Country stars like Keith Whitley, Brooke and Darin Aldridge, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, and Travis Tritt cut their teeth on Mr. Monroe’s genre of music. “I was a Music Row songwriter for 20 years in addition to being a recording artist. I really enjoyed that time, but the music and way of doing the business of it has really changed.”
Irene is thrilled to be releasing her 2nd album for Mountain Fever Records to be released in March 2019. Musically and spiritually, she is connecting past and present and exploring the themes of love, loss and of her life. Music historian Robert K. Oermann sums up her great gifts this way: “As a vocalist, Irene Kelley glows with beauty and expressiveness. As a songwriter, she shines with a luster that few of her peers can match. This is music to cleanse the soul. This is music to raise you up. This is music to touch your heart.”