Irene Kelly - These Hills
Mountain Fever Records
Irene Kelley is one of those singer-songwriters who seems to drift in and out of my musical life. It was as a writer for Trisha Yearwood, Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White, Rhonda Vincent, Alan Jackson and Claire Lynch that I first came across this unassuming lady. Shortly after, Irene released a couple of excellent singles on MCA, but it was another ten years before SIMPLE PATH, her debut album, reconnected me with this talented singer-songwriter. Since then she has released a further three albums, each one a rare and delicate musical treasure trove. This latest one is a natural progression for a singer-songwriter who has traversed life’s joys and troubles with fortitude and optimism and unfurls her tales of that life with gentle passion.
The songs, all written or co-written by Irene, veer nimbly between country ballads and straight-up bluegrass, dark Appalachia and intimately arranged folk. She delivers her fine-edged songs with a crystal clear voice cut with wild defiant sorrow. Infused with the lush harmonies that are in keeping with the roots of bluegrass, the tracks feature fresh, progressive instrumentation and free-wheeling lyrics that resonate with the subject matter which is both new and timeless. Testimony to Irene’s musical standing, she’s attracted an A-list of acoustic session musicians and singers including Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Adam Steffey (mandolin), Brian Sutton (guitar), Scott Vestal (banjo), Randy Kohrs (resophonic guitar), Mark Fain (bass) with exquisite vocal harmonies provided by Claire Lynch, Ronnie Bowman, Sharon White Skaggs, Cheryl White, Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley, as well as Irene’s own daughters, Justyna and Sara Jean.
Irene’s narrative-driven writing cuts through the soul, blending bluegrass, country and gospel, encompassed in total honesty. Opening with the infectious Carolina Wind and closing with the deeply-felt Before You Call Me Home, there are stops for hard-core bluegrass (Coal Train), the poignant and ominous thoughts of a woman hopelessly consumed by passion (Fallin’ Anyway) and in a similar vein, the heartrending Moonlight Is Falling. The journey continues with These Hills—a song so good that it could be a potential standard—and the wistful, nostalgic Johnson’s Hardware Store—a gently candid reminisce of times long gone.
All of these songs are vibrant and illustrious stories that are compelling with lush acoustic arrangements that haunt and mesmerise and shimmering melodies. Irene Kelley offers the kind of comfort that only well-versed singer-songwriters can give. An album full of sad songs to revel in as the days grow shorter and colder.