People believe in Kristen Kelly. Candid and down to earth, with a room-filling smile and a voice that echoes the heart of what she sings, Kristen laughs as she describes her music as “a little more grease than polish.” And that grease is an exciting mix, distilled from her country, blues, and classic rock influences into a passionate, playful, often sexy, and always heartfelt reflection of real life as she knows it.
“I have a hard time singing or writing about something I can’t relate to,” she says, and that philosophy is front and center on her Arista Nashville debut album, co-produced by nine-time CMA Award-winning producer Tony Brown and two-time GRAMMY®-winning songwriter Paul Overstreet.
“Paul got the ball rolling,” Kristen says. A chance meeting at a 2010 benefit concert impressed Overstreet enough to invite her to write with him, sparking a chain of events that ultimately led to her record deal. But Kristen was far from an “overnight” discovery.
Born in Waco, Texas, Kristen Kelly grew up in the country, living on 10 acres in small-town Lorena, Texas. “You blink, you miss it,” she smiles. She credits her outdoorsy, adventurous spirit in adult life to those days of “simple country living.”
She sang in talent shows and high school choir, and by middle school had taken an interest in poetry, beginning the foundation for the songwriting that would emerge years later. “I grew up in love with music,” Kristen recalls. Her late grandfather, Sterling Kelly, was a country musician – “I still have 45s of him and his band” – while her dad helped instill her affinity for classic rock, as well as her determination. “He’s a simple, hard-working man who never quits – and I think that’s where I get some of my ‘workaholic’ from is him.” Along the way, she adds, “I fell in love with the blues.”
While bartending in 2001, an impromptu performance earned Kristen an on-the-spot invitation to sing with a regional classic-rock cover band. That night launched a three-year part-time gig with the band as she moved closer to a life in music, co-writing her first song (“Down in Flames” with Brandon Jenkins and Stoney LaRue) in 2004, the same year she began a two-year music degree at Waco’s McLennan Community College.
In her final semester, a friend asked her to sing harmony on songs he was recording. They began writing and recording with Kristen on lead vocals, as well, resulting in their self-released album, The Highway Is My Home, as Modern Day Drifters. Initially a duo, they added a few players to flesh-out their live sound, and the act earned airplay and acclaim around Texas. But with the departure of her original partner in late 2008, Kristen took the reins and recorded her debut under the banner Kristen Kelly & The Modern Day Drifters, producing all but one song on 2010’s independent Placekeeper.
Her musical style embraces influences ranging from Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, and Bob Seger to singer/songwriter Patty Griffin to the blues and soul of Ray Charles, Susan Tedeschi, and Bonnie Raitt, while her country roots were shaped in part by the sounds of the ‘80s and ‘90s. “I grew up listening to The Judds and Reba and George Strait and Willie Nelson,” she says, adding that her biggest influence is Merle Haggard.
“I think I’m such a big fan of Merle Haggard’s music and his songwriting because it’s simple. I’ve always believed that country music was three chords and the truth, and that’s more or less what he did – and what all the great blues musicians did.”
Kristen mines her own truth with a lighthearted look at love gone awry on the groove-filled “Ex-Old Man,” while the deeply personal “Feeling Nothing” is the culmination of lyric lines that had been in her thoughts for years. “There stands a man I used to love / his hands my skin they used to touch / the very hands that once held my heart” begins the ballad of time-won healing.
“I’m a happy person,” Kristen offers, “but what I write has a lot of angst and realness to it, whether it’s something that I’ve personally experienced or somebody close to me has experienced. To be able to give voice to pain that I’ve felt, to be able to say ‘it hurts’ when it hurts, is part of my music. And if something I’ve gone through helps somebody get through something in their life, then I think that’s the ultimate reward for being a survivor.”
From the pen of acclaimed singer/songwriter Matraca Berg, Kristen pours out the emotional restlessness of a strained-but-committed relationship in another album highlight, “How Leaving Feels.” “I think maybe every man and woman at some point has wanted to know what leaving would feel like,” she says, “but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gonna do it.”
But there are times when leaving has its place, and Kristen’s dynamic vocals soar on the rocked-out blues of “Turn and Face Memphis,” a spirited kiss-off to a my-way-or-the-highway ultimatum that mirrors a time in her own life.
The strength and passion of her delivery further shine on the soulfully sexy “He Loves to Make Me Cry,” which she wrote with Overstreet and Even Stevens. But there’s another Overstreet co-write, “Signs,” that speaks to an important side of Kristen Kelly. While the lyric is about a relationship, there’s a deeper meaning that reflects some of the inspiration that brought her to this point in her career.
“There’ve been little signs along the way,” she shares. “I’m no holy roller, but it’s like, ‘All right, I’m listening.’ I see it, I hear it, I feel that little nudge – and I’m gonna go with it.”
That faith is at the heart of Kristen Kelly, and it’s visible on the inside of her right wrist, with a tattoo of the word “Believe.”
“If you’ve got a dream, keep dreaming,” she says. “Believe. Ten years ago, I’d have never dreamed I’d be sitting right here, but I am.”