The longstanding joke, usually told by Keystone State residents themselves, is that Pennsylvania is "Pittsburgh on one end, Philadelphia on the other, and Kentucky in between." It's usually intended as a political commentary, but in the case of Pennsylvania native Irene Kelley, there's a musical context as well as a family history. The century-old photograph on the back of her new release features a group of Pennsylvania coal miners, one of whom is her grandfather.
The work of Merle Travis, Loretta Lynn and many others over the decades has highlighted the close connection between music and the coal industry in Kentucky and West Virginia, but Kelley's title song recalls that men have been going underground to make a living in Pennsylvania longer than anywhere else in the country. It's a powerful song that would likely have Travis himself nodding approval.
Kelley is no newcomer to the game. She arrived in Nashville some three decades ago and quickly became among the most dependable writers in the Music Row scene. Three solo albums over the span of 15 years or so were critically well-spoken of and even generated a single, "You Are A Rock," but the reviews didn't translate into dollar signs and bullets on the Billboard charts.
The fact is though, as the new disc emphasizes and underlines, that Kelley's vocal talents are well synched with her writing talents. Over top of nicely crafted bluegrass/Americana arrangements her voice conveys clarity, vibrancy and presence reminiscent of Claire Lynch. Which is pretty convenient, as Lynch is among the all-star cast helping out, and the combination of them on "My Flower" and "Angels Around Her" makes for two of the better tracks.
The closer, listed as a "bonus" track, features Kelley with daughters Justyna and Sara Jean on "You Are Mine," a trio that establishes yet again that musical talent is hereditary - it's a harmonic delight, a bonus in the truest sense of the word. Kelley's talents are no secret to the Nashville crowd, but for the rest of us "Pennsylvania Coal" is among the nicer surprises of the last couple of years.