Irene Kelley Mines Gold in Pennsylvania Coal
When Stuart Duncan’s fiddle leaps off the first song, “You Don’t Run Across My Mind,” on veteran songwriter Irene Kelley’s new album, Pennsylvania Coal, we can’t help but be transported out of this moment and carried by Kelley’s sparkling voice—backed on this song by Darren Vincent—into a world that celebrates hope, love, and joy as much as it mourns loss. “You Don’t Run Across My Mind” opens an album that carries Kelley back home both musically and lyrically, as she weaves together songs about her small town home of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and about her grandfather and his life in the Pennsylvania coal mines. Kelley’s first new collection in more than ten years offers a chance to celebrate the golden artistry of Kelley’s brilliant songwriting even as the music wends its way into our hearts and mind.
Joined on this album by bluegrass royalty—Dale Ann Bradley, Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch, Jerry Salley, and a holy host of others provide background vocals—Kelley weaves her angelic voice—that recalls Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith—around the brilliant instrumentation of Bryan Sutton (guitar and banjo), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Adam Steffey (mandolin), and Thomm Jutz (guitar), among others. Songs such as “Rattlesnake Rattler” leap off the album with their straight-ahead, driving bluegrass, while the beautiful, mournful “Things We Never Did” blends mountain folk with French street music, deriving its power from Mark Fain’s haunting accordion.
One of the albums most poignant songs, “Angels Around Her,” sings of someone who will be “safe to do most anything/wrapped inside those angels.” The song is as much a prayer as it is the story of a mother whose love has acted—and continues to act—as angel’s wings to her daughter. Kelley wrote the song with Billy Yates (Vince Gill, The Time Jumpers) when her mom was losing her battle with cancer over ten years ago; she told Yates about her mother’s collection of angels of all kinds—paper, porcelain, pictures of angels—that spilled into every nook and cranny of her house. As Kelley writes, “they gave her much comfort, and the memory comforts me to this day.”
Every song on Pennsylvania Coal showcases Kelley’s consummate songwriting skills, her deft musicianship, and her singularly beautiful voice. In these songs, she tells a story we can’t soon forget.
A few days before she celebrated her upcoming album release with a show at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, Kelley talked by phone from Nashville about her new album.
Henry Carrigan: Why did you decide to do this album now?
Kelley: I’m really excited to have this album out. I always wanted to do a bluegrass album because I’ve always love bluegrass guitar pickin’. So, my producer, Mark Fain—who also plays bass on the record—and I had some conversations about it. I’d been writing songs with great writers like Thomm Jutz, Jon Weisberger, and Peter Cooper, among others. We cut the tracks in one day. Lyrically, I can relate so much to the songs on the album.
HC: How did you select the songs?
Kelley: We had about 16 or 18 songs from which to choose ones we wanted for the album. The songs had to work together, and I had to be into them. Mark has such insight, though; he thought there was one kind of song missing from the album, one with a “this-here-feel.” When Jon Weisberger and I got together to write the next week, I told him that that my sister had shown up in the eulogy I wrote from my Mom over ten years ago: “Mom’s way and values were reflected in my dear sister’s heart.” Jon said: “I believe ‘Sister’s Heart’ is our song.”
HC: Did the songs fit together in a kind of narrative arc?
Kelley: When I think about the artists I really enjoy, they connect with subjects dear to themselves. Those are the songs that inspire me and the kinds of songs I was trying to include on Pennsylvania Coal. The songs did end up being a cohesive project about experiences in my life that I was able to sing about from my point of view as an artist. Doing this album is like going home, and I feel like I’ve come back full circle musically and lyrically.
HC: When did you start singing and playing?
Kelley: When I was 15, I sang in a rock band; before that I was singing classical music. One day, I brought a Dolly Parton record into band practice and said we should try to do some of her songs. The band told me it was time for me to move on. (Laughs) When I was 19, I picked up the guitar thanks to a couple of bluegrassers from West Virginia who told me that I needed to accompany myself when I was singing. I started writing songs a couple of months after that; one of my first songs, “Pennsylvania is My Home,” was in the running for the state song.
HC: Tell me about your songwriting process.
Kelley: A lot of my ideas come during moments of solitude, so I try to set aside time for solitude. Of course, some days I spend a lot of time in the car, and so I try to use that quiet time. Sometimes an idea will come to me after listening to music. I try to get the song down by writing it down or singing it into a recorder. Songwriting is only part inspiration, though; it’s a good deal of work as well; you know, as they say, part inspiration, part perspiration.(Laughs) I do a lot of co-writing, and co-writing is a really great way to help with moments of inspiration and the harder process of simply sitting down and writing. I wrote with several great writers on this new album, including my daughters, Justyna and Sara Jean. The song, “You Don’t Run Across My Mind,” for example, grew out of a thought I had: “you wonder if someone thinks about you, even a little, and if you were to describe how much that person consumed your thoughts it would be in large amounts.” To that person, you might be a breeze, but to you, that person might be a hurricane. Peter Cooper gave me a verse, and we raced off to write the rest of the song.
HC: Who are some of your musical and songwriting influences?
Kelley: Dolly Parton is at the top of my list. I love Gregg Allman’s voice because it has some sort grit to it. His “Laid Back” album is so good, and “Multi-Colored Lady” is my favorite track on it. Barbara Streisand: her version of “Send in the Clowns” makes me cry every time I hear it. Of course, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt are huge influences. As far as songwriting goes, Don Wayne is someone I’ve always admired. His song, “Country Bumpkin,” sung by Cal Smith, was one of the first country songs I fell in love with; I got to write a song with him, “Hold Her,” that Loretta Lynn recorded. Of course, Bill Anderson; I’ve had the opportunity to write with him, and he’s so amazing. He’s still writing great songs.
HC: How do you think you’ve grown as an artist over the years?
Kelley: Well, I know that this is who I am and this is the music I want to play. I recognize who I am as an artist is not going to change. One of the ways I’ve grown the most, I think, is in my songwriting. Now when I start to write a song, I know if it’s a song I’m going to stay with and finish.