Up until this week, you may have only known Ruston Kelly as Kacey Musgraves’ husband. But with the release of his debut full-length record Dying Star, he will be solidified as an artist worth your full attention. Kelly fuses the raw rasp of Ryan Adams with the demon-wrestling songwriting of Jason Isbell on Dying Star, with songs reconciling the dark days of his past with the brighter future ahead of him. Kelly finds softness in the midst of a sometimes gritty, messy life, and maintains hope even when it seems there’s nothing to live for.
We got a taste for Kelly’s soul-baring smolder on his 2017 EP Halloween, but Dying Star feels like his true debut. Not quite a country record, Dying Star falls somewhere on the Americana spectrum, with blue-blooded hints of Bruce Springsteen rock and roll and a bit of a twang emphasized with subtle steel guitar. Kelly writes like a country singer, though. He nails the hard-living, down-on-your-luck narrative that permeates some of the best country songs, and doesn’t shy away from exposing any unflattering details.
Hard drug-use, heavy drinking, and repeating the same mistakes figure prominently on Dying Star. On “Blackout,” a tale of blacking out in his car after a rough night is emphasized by the wheezing beauty of a harmonica. On the catchy “Faceplant,” he hopes a pill problem won’t be the end of a relationship. On “Big Brown Bus,” Kelly’s subject is hanging by a thread, hitting rock bottom to the tune of one of Dying Star’s most stunning, memorable melodies.
There is suffering even in Kelly’s love songs, though they’re still some of the prettiest you’ve heard in a while. “Mockingbird” is a swooning, nostalgia-tinged ode of commitment to a fellow lost soul. And “Trying To Let Her” finds him succumbing to something that may be good for him for once.
Kelly has the chops (and the looks) to become a mainstream country star, but it’s hard to imagine him conforming to anything other than whatever he wants. Dying Star is a confident and strong debut from an artist who feels already fully realized. There isn’t a single song you’ll want to skip, and there is so much to discover with repeat listens. It’s the kind of record you’ll turn to again and again, to keep you company whether you’re falling in love or falling down in the gutter.