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Ruston Kelly

Marrying the hardscrabble poetry of alt-country troubadours with the moodiness of alternative singer/songwriters, Ruston Kelly cuts a unique figure in Nashville. He originally earned his reputation as a songwriter, penning "Nashville Without You" for Tim McGraw in 2013. As a performer, he moved toward the fringes of mainstream country, a shift notable on his 2017 debut EP, Halloween, and its 2018 full-length follow-up, Dying Star. Kelly took to calling his blend of old-fashioned songcraft, moody Americana, and alt-rock attitude "dirt emo" -- he called a 2019 covers EP this very name -- but the elastic, impressionistic hybrid reached its fruition on his second full-length album, 2020's Shape & Destroy, while his indie rock influences came into the spotlight on 2023's The Weakness. Born in Georgetown, South Carolina, Ruston Kelly spent much of his childhood moving around the country. He found solace in figure skating and music. By the time he was a teenager, he was writing songs in earnest; some of these tunes are featured on the 2013 EP The Bootleg Sessions. Around that time, he moved to Nashville and signed a publishing deal with BMG Nashville, beginning to place songs on albums by established musicians, starting with Tim McGraw's 2013 version of "Nashville Without You." Kelly next collaborated with Josh Abbott on the latter's "Tuesday Night;" the Texas singer also recorded Kelly's "Front Row Seat" in 2015. By this point, Kelly's performing career was gaining momentum. Signing with Razor & Tie's Washington Square Music, Kelly released his debut EP, Halloween, in 2017. Produced by Mike Mogis, who previously worked with Jenny Lewis and Bright Eyes, the set earned strong reviews and attention on streaming services, and Kelly's momentum increased when "Asshole" started to make viral waves in April 2018. By that point, he signed with Rounder and finished his full-length debut, Dying Star, a record co-produced by Jarrad Kritzstein and recorded at El Paso's Sonic Ranch. Dying Star appeared in September 2018. Kelly took a detour in 2019 with Dirt Emo, Vol. 1, a record that fused country with his adolescent love of emo. The album featured originals and covers, including a version of Wheatus' "Teenage Dirtbag" and a cover of Dashboard Confessional's "Screaming Infidelities" graced with a cameo by its songwriter Chris Carrabba; the set also contained a version of Taylor Swift's "All Too Well." A year after this EP, Kelly returned with his second album, Shape & Destroy, in 2020. Like its predecessor, it was also co-produced by the singer/songwriter and Jarrad Kritzstein. Kelly co-wrote the song "Don't Be Alarmed" for Amanda Shires' 2022 album Take It Like a Man, and in April 2023, he released his third album, The Weakness. Produced by Nate Mercereau, who previously worked with Sharon Van Etten and Maggie Rogers, the LP showed a greater indie rock influence, while the lyrics reflected his split from fellow singer and songwriter Kacey Musgraves. It reached number 19 on Billboard's Top Heatseekers Country chart, and Kelly followed it later that year with singles like "Heaven Made the Darkness" and "Belly of the Beast."
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo


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