Q and A with Irene Kelley

Nashville musician, Irene Kelley, makes a most personal statement about her home state of Pennsylvania, family, friends and her own perspective about life on her new album, Pennsylvania Coal.  Irene’s discography is most impressive but this newest album is one that seems to have struck a chord with those inside and outside the music industry.  Pennsylvania Coal  is riveting.  Its organic homegrown feel  beckons the listener to listen….to really listen.  This is not background music.  Irene’s voice meshes with the instrumentation in such a way that makes you feel like you’ve known these songs all your life.  As Robert Oermann from Music Row Magazine says of Irene: She sings with immense hillbilly heart and writes like a champion.”

To learn more about Irene Kelley, check out her website.

Here’s a video of Irene singing “Pennsylvania Coal” on Music City Roots.

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One of the first songs that you wrote is one called “Pennsylvania Is My Home” and now this album Pennsylvania Coal has just been released.  Despite your move south to Nashville, it appears that you have many ties to your home state.  Tell us how that first song opened doors for you.

“Pennsylvnia Is My Home” was written after I had been hanging out with some bluegrassers from West Virginia.  They had been singing and talking about their home state and how beautiful and mountainous it is.  I got jealous and thought, “Hey, PA is beautiful too and we have mountains”.  So I wrote that song.  I was performing it in a bar in Greensburg and some film makers were there having a drink.  They approached me and said they were about to start work on a documentary called, “Pennsylvania Outdoor Profile” and my song would be perfect.  After recording the song for the film, we (my mom & I) printed up postcards to mail out to elected state officials (I have no idea why we did that) and one wrote me back and said he wanted to nominate it for the state song since PA did not have a state song.  So I cut a 45 record, had t-shirts and bumper stickers made and sent to radio.  I mailed some 45’s to record labels in Nashville after swiping a phone book from a hotel on a trip I made after high school graduation.  Lots of great addresses in there.  Gordon Payne from CBS records called me and offered to publish my songs and the rest is history.

 I’m curious to learn what it’s like to be a songwriter in Nashville.  Is it like an office job where you go in and co-write songs with a variety of different people?  

There was a time when I wrote songs four to five days a week from 10 to 3 or 5.  These days it’s little more laid back.  I write when I get an idea or feel inspired or have a record to record.

 When you’re co-writing with someone, how long does it take for you to realize that you’ve clicked and that you can actually make music together?

Usually within the first 30 minutes.  If I have not written with that person in the past, it is like a blind date and can be just as awkward.

 Pennsylvania Coal has several co-writes.  When your goal is to express something so uniquely personal as you have done with this record, is it challenging for your co-writing partner to get into your head / heart?

I have a group of writers that I have been working with and we ‘get’ each other.  It is like casting.  Some song  ideas work best with certain co-writers.

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 Country Music Magazine gave a great quote about this new album saying “A delicate, sweetly tempered voice and a subdued acoustic style with the gentle nuance of an Alison Krauss and the observant eye of Kathy Mattea.”  I was thinking the same thing as I listened to the tracks on your album.  Were you influenced at all by Kathy Mattea’s album, Coal?  How would you compare the two projects?

To tell you the truth, I’ve not even heard that record but I saw a few of the titles.   The Larry Cordle song she recorded, “My Name Is Coal” is an incredible song.  But again, I heard Larry sing that months after we wrote, “Pennsylvania Coal”.  I know Kathy is from somewhere near Nitro, West Virginia.  That is about 300 miles from my home town of Latrobe, PA.  I guess you could say we are from the same region.

 I have to admit that one of my favorite songs on the album is the bonus track, “You Are Mine.”  Did you write that song with your two daughters, Sara Jean and Justyna?  Have they always been as involved with your music?

Yes, we wrote that while driving thru Telluride, CO. while Sara Jean was attending Fort Lewis.  It is hard to get any radio reception at that location so we sang in the car.

Are there any songs on Pennsylvania Coal that are especially meaningful to you?  If so, why?

Pretty much all of them.  And for different reasons.  They are all very personal and real.  I really enjoy it when people come up to me and tell me about a certain song that rings true for them.  Like “Pennsylvania Coal”.  I’ve had folks as far as Canada tell me that they had a coal mining grand pap or uncle.  That sort of thing makes it really special for me.

 You’ve had some impressive people cover your songs–Ricky Skaggs, Trisha Yearwood, and Alan Jackson.  What goes through your head when you listen to your songs being sung by someone else?

It is usually a very high honor when artists at this level of integrity and talent cover one of my songs.   I recall a time Trisha invited all the writers to the studio and catered dinner to play the album , Inside Out from front to back.  When “Second Chance” was about halfway through, I was moved to tears to hear the emotion she brought to that particular song.

 I’ve got to ask. Is it really true that you sang in a Led Zeppelin tribute band when you were in high school?  What was your favorite part about that time in your life?

I sang in a rock band and we covered some Led Zeppelin songs.  That was a fun time for me and that is when Linda Constantine songs were considered Rock and Roll.  I covered a lot of those too and loved them.

 Will you be doing a lot of touring behind this new album?  If so, where?

Yes, we have a tour in the works.

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