Ruston Kelly came onstage for today’s Free at Noon with the demeanor of a road-weary troubadour who thought it felt more like 9 a.m. than noon, but it didn’t take long for the musician to reveal the powerhouse energy that takes his songs from sleepy, whispered country tunes to soaring belted-out ballads in the span of seconds. The Nashville-based singer songwriter is touring behind his debut album Dying Star and is just in the beginning stages of becoming a familiar name in country music, but with his refreshing, raw sound that’s nothing like what you’d hear on mainstream country radio, he’s well on his way to becoming a champion of country fans who don’t necessarily want to hear about beer and pickup trucks in every song.
It probably doesn’t hurt that Ruston Kelly happens to be married to one of country’s newest and biggest stars, recent Free at Noon guest Kacey Musgraves, but while Musgraves often leans pop, Kelly counters with sparser, toned-down arrangements that are given a classic Americana sound with the use of pedal steel guitar (performed live by his father Tim “TK” Kelly). Together, the musical couple are working to carve out a new place in a genre that’s become far too homogenized, and in turn earning themselves listeners who may have previously sworn off country music altogether.
In interviews, Kelly’s been vocal about his subversive approach to country, but today he let his music speak for itself, starting off his eight-song set with his popular single “Mockingbird.” Though he got his most recognizable song out of the way early, the rest that followed were equally melodic, mid-tempo jams full of highs and lows — under their smooth and laid-back exterior, they’re packed with deeper themes that provoke thoughtful listening. Dying Star is a deeply personal record for Kelly, and that shows in his lyricism, which remains close to his roots. The songwriter’s perspective is not one of someone aching for musical stardom or the next big hit; he remains grounded and almost brutally real as he powers through songs that tackle sobriety (“Blackout”), directionless wandering (“Big Brown Bus”) and reclaiming his sense of self, as hard as it may be (“Paratrooper’s Battlecry”).
Ruston Kelly is XPN’s Artist to Watch for the month of October, and part of NPR’s 2018 Slingshot class. He plays a sold out show tonight at Boot & Saddle with Katie Pruitt. Dying Star is out now; listen here.
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