"Winters are Long ...But So Are the Memories"
by Susan Marquez
Irene Kelley has established herself as a singer-songwriter in Nashville. Her songs have been recorded by artists including Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Loretta Lynn, Little Big Town, Claire Lynch, Darrell Scott, Rhonda Vincent, The Whites, Bill Anderson, The Osborne Brothers, and more. She is releasing her fourth full-length bluegrass album on January 27.
The granddaughter of a coal miner, Irene grew up in a musical family in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was a Polish immigrant. There was a lot of singing and dancing in our home. My dad played the accordion and guitar and sang a lot of Jimmie Rodgers songs, as well as Polish and Italian polka songs. My brother played Chet Atkins-style guitar –he was pretty good – and I sang.” Irene became serious about music at age sixteen when she joined a rock band in Pennsylvania, her home state. “I was the singer,” she says. “We did a lot of Led Zepplin tunes.” But her “aha” moment came when she heard Dolly Parton sing on television. “I just stopped dead in my tracks. I went out and got one of her albums and took it to band practice, and I said, ‘oh my gosh, you guys, you have to hear this. We have to learn these songs.’ They just looked at each other and said, ‘we need a new singer.’”
When she was eighteen or nineteen, Irene found her people when she met up with some bluegrassers. “One of them told me I needed to learn to play the guitar so I could at least play with my singing, so I picked up the guitar. I started learning from a chord chart. I learned three chords, and before I knew it, I was starting to come up with some original song ideas. I didn’t really know what they were – songwriting snuck up on me after learning to play the guitar.”
Leaving her home in Pennsylvania, Irene moved to Nashville in 1984, where she pursued her musical career in earnest.
“I was pregnant with my first daughter, Justyna, at the time,” she says. “I remember the first song of mine to be recorded was for Carl Jackson - You Are A Rock, and I’m A Rolling Stone. The next song I wrote was Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This, recorded by Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White.”
Other songwriting collaborators on the album include Billy Droze, Terry Herd, Ronnie Bowman, Mark Irwin, Steve Leslie, Steve Cropper, Bill Whyte, and Donna Ulisse. Irene’s other daughter, Sara Jean, provided harmonies on the project. There was one song on the album that Irene didn’t write. “I have always loved the band Kansas, and the song Can I Tell You is a favorite of mine.” Written by Phillip Ehart, David Hope, Steve Walsh, and Richard John Williams, the song was Kansas’ first single. “I had a huge Kansas poster on my wall when I was a teenager, mostly because of the violin player, Robbie Steinhardt, whom I had a giant crush on.” Sara Jean encouraged Irene to record the song, and Sara Jean, along with her sister Justyna, joined Irene in singing the song. “I have to give a high-five to Scott Vestal for saying we could cut the song in bluegrass style.”
The album quickly produced three chart-topping singles, including Wild Mountain Stream, the number-one song for 2021 on the Bluegrass Today weekly chart.
Irene and her daughters have recently finished recording a Christmas album, “Kelley Family Christmas.” Three songs were released as an EP on November 25, and the full-length twelve-song record will be released in October 2023. “This is a family project that we are very proud of.”