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Irene Kelley "Pennsylvania Coal" album review (David Morris - Bluegrass Today)

I wasn’t prepared for what happened the first time I hit play on Irene Kelley’s new CD, Pennsylvania Coal.

I’ve known and admired her work as a songwriter and I knew from reading the liner notes that the picking would be terrific. That’s a given when the credits include Adam Steffey on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Bryan Sutton on guitar.

What I wasn’t ready for was Kelley’s voice. From the opening lines of You Don’t Run Across My Mind to the final strains of You Are Mine, it mesmerized me. Think of a comfortable place between Claire Lynch and Nanci Griffith, the kind of voice you can listen to all day.

That warm, soothing voice carries Pennsylvania Coal, a collection of 12 songs that Kelley wrote with a string of collaborators, including Peter Cooper, Jon Weisberger, Thomm Jutz, John Hadley and her daughters Justyna and Sara Jean. The harmonies are heavenly, too, courtesy of guests such as Dale Ann Bradley, Steve Gulley, Claire Lynch, Darren Vincent, Jerry Salley, Carl Jackson and Rhonda Vincent.

The title cut takes listeners deep into Kelley’s roots in a gritty Pennsylvania coal town. Like much of the CD, the song is deeply personal, but with familiar touchstones that give all of us access to, and understanding of, her message.

You Don’t Run Across My Mind offers a strong start to the CD, exploring that delicious yet uncomfortable situation in which you can’t stop thinking about someone, no matter how hard you try. Things We Never Did is another song that takes an introspective view of a relationship, in this case by focusing on what didn’t come to pass. This one features some of my favorite lines on the CD:

“Forever me and you, nearly a dream come true. You don’t know how I miss The things we never did.”

Kelley is an inventive and imaginative writer, so songs can take off in just about any direction. Two of my favorites are My Flower and Rattlesnake Rattler. The first, written with her daughter Justyna, recalls the Carter Family’s You Are My Flower, which Kelley sang to her girls as a lullaby when they were infants. It’s a song within a song, really, that pays tribute to both a key musical influence and her own family.

The second, written with Jutz, is what I like to call an accidental song. Jutz showed up for a previously scheduled writing appointment excited because someone had given him a snake’s rattle to put inside his guitar. The rattle is supposed to provide extra “mojo.” I had one in my first Kay bass, which didn’t seem to help me. But this one helped bring Kelley and Jutz a fun song.

Not every song is as strong as those I’ve mentioned, but most of them are worth repeated listening and I guarantee a couple of the melodies will get stuck in your head.

Something else about this record gets stuck in my head, too, though not in a good way.

It’s the drums. I’m not from the camp that says if drums are included it isn’t bluegrass. I think drum playing that isn’t intrusive is fine. But when you have a top-drawer rhythm section – Steffey on mandolin and producer Mark Fain on bass – you really don’t need anything else or anyone else keeping time.

But that’s a minor irritant, not a major flaw.

There’s a lot to like about Pennsylvania Coal. And there’s a voice to love.


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