Following a 2016 overdose, the roots musician kicked drugs and emerged with an introspective new album
Ruston Kelly discovered American roots music during his junior year of high school while living abroad in Brussels, Belgium.
“I heard the Carter Family somewhere and I was like, ‘What is that?’ It felt like I’d discovered a brand new type of music no one had ever heard before, and I kind of dove right into it,” said Kelly, 31, adding that the Carters inevitably led him to musicians such as Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Leadbelly, among others. “The Carter Family kind of exploded this love of folk music and songs that were shared in different interpretations throughout the decades. And they were all inherently American, like truly American roots music, and I think subconsciously it made me feel closer to home.”
Kelly’s family moved around a lot when he was growing up, which has helped him ease into a role as a touring musician. On a deeper level, the frequent displacements further affirmed his attachment to songwriting, because, as Kelly explained, “Things changed all the time and songwriting had a way of encapsulating events in my life where they would never go away."
As a kid, Kelly, who is married to country musician Kacey Musgraves, would play toy piano and beat on pots and pans, finally picking up guitar and taking the craft more seriously at age 13. Five years later, he moved to Nashville, making an early pilgrimage to Johnny and June Cash’s gravesite in nearby Hendersonville, Tennessee. In 2013, Kelly landed a publishing deal with BMG Nashville, where he worked alongside songwriters such as Hillary Lindsey, Natalie Hemby and Lori McKenna.Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
“I don’t consider myself a co-writer, but I definitely at some point needed money, and a good way to make some was to sign with a publishing company that expected me to write with other people,” said Kelly, who headlines a concert at the A&R Bar on Saturday, Oct. 19. “So instead of taking it like, ‘This isn’t comfortable territory for me creatively,’ I took it as a chance to grow and learn from people I looked up to, so it became less about me trying to get a cut from a publishing company and more about being able to spend time in the room with writers I admired.”
These absorbed lessons inform the comfortably lived-in songs populating Kelly’s debut full-length, Dying Star, from 2018, many of which were written during a period of turbulence in the musician's life. The title track, for one, makes reference to a 2016 overdose, Kelly singing, “Come find me falling apart/Brought me out of the dark/I went way too far this time.”
Other songs, such as “Faceplant,” walk a more darkly humorous path, combining evocative lines that appear to reference the restlessness that has long-defined Kelly’s on-the-move life, where steady ground has sometimes been hard to come by (“I was born and raised in an earthquake state”), with more plainspoken references to his past struggles with addiction (“I took too many pills again”).
“I think it’s important in your honesty and transparency to show you have strength over your demons, and I think being able to laugh at yourself, especially laughing at something so dire, it empowers you,” Kelly said. “You have to be able to say, ‘Wow, the amount of pitfalls one can have in this life is almost comical.’”
While Kelly relapsed a handful of times following his overdose, he eventually kicked drugs before recording Dying Star, which made sessions a drastically different experience from the making of his 2017 EP, Halloween.
“[Halloween] was a struggle in recording, between wanting to create from a completely clear head and wanting to put something on record that wasn’t altered by anything and then also having the disease of addiction,” Kelly said. “I’d be in the studio literally debating whether or not I was going to get high.”
Kelly described the making of Dying Star, in contrast, as a means of moving beyond the addictions that had long plagued him.
“These days we need that type of rhetoric in art and culture. We need transparency. We need people to be unashamed and honest, especially with addiction. We’re all addicted to something. I mean, half of the world is addicted to their fucking cellphone,” he said. “My [overdose] left the blackest stain. And I didn’t get immediately clean. But after a couple ups and downs it was like, ‘OK, let’s make this change. This doesn’t define who you are. This is going to help you understand who you are. And the only way to do that is to get out of it.’ And Dying Star was my way out.”