In 1983, Irene Kelley made her first trip to Nashville and found what seemed like a bluegrass paradise. "We came here on our honeymoon," she tells the Scene. "We went to The Station Inn and met somebody and ended up at this party in a field in Madison. It was the very first International Bluegrass Music Association gathering. Emmylou Harris and Marty Stuart were there. It was like I'd died and went to heaven."
Seven months later, Kelley moved to Nashville and learned of the very real conflict of having a bluegrass soul in the Nashville of the 1980s.
"I was playing bluegrass at The Station Inn once a month, and the advice from everyone was, 'Don't play there, you're going to be typecast,' " she says. "I dropped my banjo player but was still playing the Station. Then I signed with MCA, and they told me not to play there at all. So I stopped playing, and I was waiting around for the label to do something. At that time people were trying to get out of it. Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill were all trying to shed the bluegrass image."
Kelley spent the next 30 years navigating the tricky path between her bluegrass sensibilities and her mainstream country success as a songwriter. The balancing act pushed her toward artistic triumphs like "Love Can't Ever Get Better Than This," the CMA Award-winning song she co-wrote with Nancy Montgomery for Skaggs and Sharon White. In 2001, Kelley returned to a bluegrass-influenced sound with her critically praised solo debut, Simple Path, but the purer blades of blue still called to her.
"Terry Eagan at Patio Records] offered to fund a new album," Kelley says, "and we were thinking about what direction to go with it. I decided to explore the idea of going full-blown bluegrass. My writing partner Thomm Jutz told me that Mark Fain was producing bluegrass albums now and doing a lot of session work. I talked to Mark, and in five minutes I knew he was the right guy."
The resulting album, Pennsylvania Coal, succeeds not only as a return to the musical style that originally inspired Kelley, but as a personal examination of family and place. "When I came to Nashville and was pursuing the country thing," Kelley says. "I didn't talk about my Appalachian roots, but when I started digging more into bluegrass, that's what it's all about." Pointing to the 100-year-old group portrait of Appalachian coal miners on the back cover of her new CD, Kelley says, "That's my grampap right there. That was taken right at the mouth of the coalmine he worked. He and my grandma raised eight kids. They were Polish immigrants who got to Pennsylvania when he was 17 and she was 15. They got married right away and started raising a family. They always spoke broken English, but they worked really hard and were amazingly charitable people."
The story of Kelley's grandparents weathering hard times and maintaining their dignity in the face of crushing poverty is the heart of the title cut of the record. The family thread continues to wind through the album in songs like "Sister's Heart" and "Angels Around Her" as well as a more obvious example of family solidarity in "You Are Mine," a song Kelley co-wrote and performed with her two daughters. Although great songwriting almost always involves a degree of autobiography, Kelley found that deliberately aiming for a bluegrass sound strengthened her personal investment in the songs.
"I felt a lot freer in my writing," Kelley says. "I was writing my story, so I could go for it. It was like, 'Let's talk about all the things that meant something to me personally, and people will either be intrigued by them or identify with them.' "
Although Kelley has no regrets for the path she chose leading her away from bluegrass, she is happy with her homecoming.
"It feels just right," says Kelley. "It's the right time, and I'm getting back to what I know. Writing these songs — it was just telling my story."