Kelly’s debut for Rounder Records, Dying Star follows his acclaimed EP Halloween—a 2017 release produced by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, First Aid Kit, Jenny Lewis) and praised by Rolling Stone (who described Kelly as a “scruffier-voiced Ryan Adams obsessed with both Merle and the Misfits”). Kelly co-produced Dying Star with Jarrad K (a songwriter/producer who’s previously worked with Kate Nash and Weezer), enlisting local musicians like singer/songwriter Natalie Hemby and Joy Williams of the Civil Wars to bring the album’s gracefully melodic, guitar-driven arrangements to life. And while Dying Star has its share of sonic flourishes—the elegant electronic effects, the all-female background vocals provided by singers like Kelly’s sister, Abby Sevigny, and his wife, singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves—each track centers on Kelly’s soul-baring lyrics.
“When stars die, it’s one of the most galactically powerful things that can happen in the universe, it’s one of the most beautiful things you could ever witness, and it also gives life to new stars—so basically that death is essential. To me that all connects back to how I knew I needed to change, and I needed to see that change as a promising thing.” (Ruston Kelly)
Born in South Carolina, Kelly started playing guitar under the guidance of his dad, Tim “TK” Kelly, a pedal-steel guitarist who now performs in his band. “When I was a kid my dad would play steel guitar to help me to get to sleep, so that’s the first instrument I’ve got any recollection of,” he says. Since his father worked for a paper mill and frequently changed job locations, Kelly grew up moving nearly every two years, living everywhere from Alabama to Belgium. But it was during a stint on his own in Michigan—where he went to train with an Olympic coaching team in hopes of furthering his figure-skating career—that he made his first attempt at songwriting. “The family I was living with were contractually obligated to provide me with food, rides to school and the rink, money for miscellaneous things I needed—but they didn’t do any of that,” says Kelly, who was then 14. To soothe his homesickness, Kelly holed up in his room with the Jackson Browne album and guitar his dad had passed off to him before he’d left for Michigan. “I didn’t know this then, but when I was little my dad would sneak cigarettes by taking me out for a drive,” he says. “He’d just smoke and play an entire Jackson Browne album while we drove all around the neighborhood, so when I put on For Everyman in Michigan, I felt like I was home.”
Although Kelly first dabbled in songwriting in Michigan, it wasn’t until his family moved to Brussels his senior year of high school that he began to find his voice as an artist. “Moving to Belgium completely destroyed my sense of cultural placement,” he says. “It’s populated by so many different types of people, and it gave me this new understanding of all the possibilities there are in terms of what you can do with your life.” While in Belgium, Kelly also discovered the music of the Carter Family, which turned out to be another milestone in his growth as a songwriter. “Before then I didn’t know much about Johnny Cash, other than that he was a fucking thug,” he says. “I ended up going all the way back to the Carter Family, and becoming so mesmerized by the way Mother Maybelle played guitar. Being enchanted by that music ended up changing my life.”
At 17, Kelly left Belgium and took off for Nashville to live with his sister, but had no firm intentions of launching a music career. “I had no idea what I was going to do in Nashville, but I knew it was going to be different from how everyone else had done it,” he says. “Everything kind of started out of necessity—like, ‘I need to pay rent, how am I gonna do that? Well, I’m pretty good at writing songs, so I guess I should get a publishing deal.’” That deal arrived several years later, in 2013, when Kelly signed with BMG Nashville. Along with penning songs for artists like Tim McGraw and Josh Abbott Band, he continued working on his own material, releasing Halloween in April 2017.