ARTICLE/PHOTOS BY BARBARA BRANDER
I sat down with up and coming artist Ruston Kelly at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival 2017. He shared some interesting thoughts and news on upcoming projects and how he met his fiance Kacey Musgraves. His debut album "Halloween" embodies a blend of folk and rock, with a soulful, haunting melodic tone and lyrics that stay with you. Ruston Kelly is also an established songwriter writing tracks for Josh Abbott Band, Kenny Chesney, and Tim McGraw’s song “Nashville Without You.”
Where are you from originally?
RK: I was born in South Carolina. My dad worked for a paper mill on the coast- Georgetown. He was a pretty transient man himself, so we moved quite a bit. So never really had a hometown growing up. I just took to being the new kid at school every couple of years. I learned a lot because of that. Have a pretty big family, my immediate family is my older sister and oldest brother and we are pretty tight, a very close family.
Are they in music as well?
RK: My sister is, she's actually an actress. She's been doing some independent films lately. She was actually in a film at The National Film Festival. She's been singing a long time, writing songs and she was a big influence on me. She was really into a lot of poetry like Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski. Hence this (points to himself). She was actually pretty hip to that when she was like 13 and turned me onto it. She's a great writer to me, one of those unsung bedroom heroes. She's about to do a record which I'm going to help her with that. I don't know if you caught the set, but she was here with me as well as my dad who plays steel guitar and is a songwriter as well. He was in the East Texas folk music scene in the sixties. So it runs in the family. That's how I got started doing it and they were on stage with me today. Pretty cool! Just me, my pops and my sister jamming.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
RK: YES, I do.
How old were you?
RK: (Laughs) I was in second grade, I know that because I was in Mrs. Hudson's class. Shoutout to Mrs. H! I wrote a song called "Golden Snow" and I had no idea that that would allude to some snickering from the class because basically I wrote a song that was called "Piss In the Snow" you know what I mean?
RK: To me it was like this amazing celestial fall from the heavens, you know? Like golden snow!
Do you remember it at all?
RK: (Singing) Golden Snow - hums -Golden Snow... It's pretty terrible! (Laughter). But the first song I wrote on the guitar was called "Blue." I was fourteen. I called it "Blue" because I thought the song sounded like a color and then I did like a whole record when I was fourteen on my tape player of different colors.
Guitar - self-taught?
When did you pick up the guitar?
RK: I picked up a guitar when I was thirteen. They were always laying around the house. They were kind of intimidating to me for awhile. They were so magical because my dad would pick one up and that's how I like got inspired to eventually create my own music. My dad, he would play guitar or steel guitar every single night. I would fall asleep sometimes listening to him play and it was just so magical. It was almost like reverent. I didn't approach one until I was like thirteen. It was almost like I stayed away from it. I needed to grow through a little bit more innocence. You know what I mean.
You play other instruments?
RK: I do. I play the banjo. I play the piano. I play the lap dulcimer; also called the mountain dulcimer. I'm pretty shitty at mandolin but I can play some bluegrass.
RK: I do play drums. I play bass. Maybe I should start my own band! (laughs).
Writing music an easy process?
RK: It depends what my intent is. With anything that you assume yourself at the bottom and there's this great thing that you are looking up at as far as honing your craft or developing a repertoire of artistic meaning to yourself, pieces of creative work that allude to that, there is work ethic involved with it for sure, there is discipline. You've got to really want do it, especially if you want to do it in the public eye, but when it just comes to the purity, the creative genesis of things, I try to let it come to me. I am a stream of consciousness writer. I come from that school, you know like Dylan was my first introduction to that. I'm not ashamed to say that it is a little bit of a cliche as far as songwriters go, but then it kind of led me to like I said Bukowski and Kerouac like when my sister introduced me to them. Was really moved by it, it seems so quick, it seemed like I was reading someone's thoughts. Robert Frost is great. I love that, but it's definitely a little bit more of a poetic calculation to it and I love that! Some of that is actually really moving but the stream of consciousness stuff Jack Kerouac, Richard Wright, that kind of stuff.
When you are going through something in life, do you tend to write more freely from a negative or positive experience?
RK: Typically negative has been easier to write.
That seems to be....
RK: Yeah uniform right?
Do you notice that with anybody in the arts there is something in the negative spin that one tends to create?
RK: Don Henley from The Eagles once said that "the creative side of the brain is also synonymous with the dark side of the brain." To me honestly, like I really feel the creative side of the brain is the most free side of the brain and we are all primal beasts at our core. We've learned through culture to be something that we're actually primally not, you know, and for a lot of good reason, for kinship ties, to also like be true to the people that you decide to be true to. To be falling in line is not necessarily a negative thing and it builds things. But sometimes art is actually meant to destroy, to rebuild and I think that's an amazing thing, like art, the creative side of our brain is so free from, should be so free, from self-judgement. It can say whatever it wants.
I love your song "A Thousand Graves."
RK: Oh COOL! Oh man, yeah!
One of the lines I totally relate to is 'Wanna straighten out all my crooked lines and then I'm gonna marry that girl'. Have you straightened those lines out or is it an ongoing process?
RK: It is. To me, I don't know if humans should ever completely straighten out their lines, but you should always try. You know otherwise the more you try, the more bent you get, the more in a circle you go. I'm a type of person like I want to move forward in my life and whatever the means. Yeah, I have done that, I have slightly straightened out some very crooked situations in my life that came to me through personal deceit maybe. I hit some ruts in the road lets just say, and I have learned how to maybe navigate a little bit more and I always thought once I learned how to navigate for myself, that I would actually be a really great partner for somebody else and both of those things have occurred.
As I listen to your album 'Halloween', there's a darkness but with a silver lining.
RK: I love that! Yes! For me, songwriting can't help but to be redemptive. I grew up watching on repeat "The Odyssey." It was this made for tv movie about the book that Homer wrote obviously, the epic and I just identify with Odysseus leaving his wife. Not to compare myself to an epic like that, but everybody's life is an epic to an extent. Small or however large you see it. Just getting up facing the day, some people have a lot harder time then others. His whole trek, I just identify with that, being a hero of your own story and recognizing that there is failure involved with that. It's actually necessary. That's the only reason I was able to do anything with my life is fail enough, to want to be better then my failures.
When you were younger and writing your first songs, did you see yourself doing what you are today?
RK: I always kind of like moved with whatever I felt like was moving me at the time. I wouldn't say I was a hellion growing up but I'm sure I was difficult from time to time because I was a very loving kid, but also I could sneak out of the house at any moment and it would be like 'When is he coming back' you know; but I love my family, I love my parent's house. Just drawn to do something and music was my outlet to that and I do remember in high school, this girl Holly said to me, we were seniors in high school, and she's like "What are you going to do?" I was like, "I want to be a f*cking songwriter." She's like "That's silly, all boys say that," you know, when they are seventeen or about eighteen. I said "No, I'm going to do it." Well, here I am.
There you go!
RK: Here we are!
When you are touring or on stage, is it something that you NEED to do now?
Does songwriting have more of a pull?
RK: To me there is no difference between the two. Whether I'm sitting at a desk or on stage, the only difference is the mechanics of how you go about it because you have people in front of you, so you sing to them. When you are at your desk, you sing to yourself but you are saying the same thing. That's about it.
Whom do you admire?
RK: I admire Jackson Browne. He's lived it all. From what I understand, he's done the ups, he's done the downs, but he has maintained a sense of integrity through his artistry, through his lyricism that has sustained a career over a very long period of time and he can still go and sell thousands of tickets singing the same songs, singing the new songs and people come to hear what he's got to say. He survives through the I'm sure the crazy, f*cking times of the late sixties, early seventies.
That whole era!
RK: WHEW! I am just going to tell you right now, I would not have survived that era! I would have crashed and burned very quickly.
What do you think of social media?
RK: For the most part I don't like it. I think it's weird and invasive, but the nature of the beast kind of calls for it. My dream scenario is to get to a place where I don't have to use it anymore, but it has honestly helped to build a fanbase. I get that and I understand that and I'm willing to be personable and be transparent to an extent that does help to create a fanbase larger then what I had when I started with it and all that. I learn how to have fun with it. It seems like all of it in this grand scheme of things is superfulous. Yes like it does help. I have seen a correlation of people interested in my music and the followers that you have. It's kind of a little dangerous I feel like. You can really get sucked into like how many people like my picture I just posted. My self-worth is valued by how many likes I get when I open up a f*cking app.
RK: It is! It's meant to be like so personal but it also feels very impersonal and I play along with that too.
Yes. We all do.
RK: We all do.
Future projects. Can you talk about a special project at 'Cash Cabin?'
RK: Yeah that's cool! I can talk about that. There is a record coming out, John Carter Cash, (Johnny Cash's son) is putting out, that's a collection of poems his dad wrote. Some of them are unfinished, that music was never put to. So people like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, myself, my fiancé Kacey Musgraves and I recorded a song, which this is the crazy part, is that John Carter and I had written a song together several years ago out at Cash Cabin and we struck up a creative friendship and he texted me, I'd say about a month ago, and was like "Hey can you meet me at this coffee shop at 10am on Friday?" I'm like okay-sure. I met him there and he had his book in his hand and it was called "Forever Words" and that's the name of the project. These lost poems of Johnny Cash and he's like hey man I would love to hear what you do with this. So I said okay. Pick one of these poems, record it and tell me what you think, you know, do whatever you want with it. So it flashed back to when I was a senior in high school and I was sitting on my bed reading a Johnny Cash book and there was this picture of a poem that he wrote for June and it was called "To June This Morning." I was seventeen years old and I put music to it and I tried and I thought I found John Carter's email and emailed him and told him I had this song of this poem his dad wrote and obviously he never responded to me. So eleven years later, I text him after he hands me that book when I get home and I'm thinking about him and hey there's this poem that I actually put music to already, would you mind if I did that? He's like 'sure', and so since it was a love poem I asked my fiancé, I was like, why don't we just do it together. Like you be June and I'll be Johnny.
That is sooo cool and ironic!
RK: Yeah! So we did it together and she added a little bit to it and I added a little bit to it, so it became this duet. So he asked us to come out to the Cabin and record it. We recorded the duet together and it's probably the first thing we've ever done together officially, acting as this great love icon is a pretty big honour. So it comes out, not sure when but it's not really so secret anymore.
How did you and Kacey meet?
RK: We met at the Bluebird. I was playing a show, that she just happened to be attending.
Where was this in?
RK: Nashville. It's such a Nashville story. The famous tiny Bluebird. I don't know if you've ever been there before?
No, but I want to go one day.
RK: It's cool! It's really cool. It's literally like a tiny, little cafe. They serve bar food and about a hundred people can fit in there. I played a set there and she came up to me afterwards and said she was really impressed with my songs. I personally thought she was hitting on me. I was OKAY (big smile) and she asked for my number and I was like you need to calm down. Need to slow your roll! So I got her number. What's funny is she will argue different about it. I texted her a lot, she never really responded and I was like 'fine'. So our day came up to write and just from that day on, we fell in love pretty much instantly. It was pretty crazy. So yeah, we've been together for a year now or so. It was pretty quick.
Any future plans of any kind?
RK: Yeah we have some stuff in the works. It will come naturally. Just can't help but to.
What's some good advice or motto that you live by?
RK: Be true to yourself. Learn what that means and act accordingly.
*Ruston Kelly performed at Stagecoach Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California on April 29, 2017
*For current tour dates and info visit www.rustonkelly.com