How Led Zeppelin led to Bluegrass for Irene Kelley
Irene Kelley’s journey from Pennsylvania to her February 13 performance with Six String Concerts took longer than you might think. The Pennsylvania-born bluegrass singer-songwriter has adventured through many changes in her personal life and professional career, before her latest album, Pennsylvania Coal, took her “back to her roots” and into Columbus.
Kelley wasn’t always a bluegrass musician. In high school, Kelley fronted a Led Zeppelin cover band. She took to the rock group’s music because she had the range to hang with Robert Plant’s high-pitched vocals: “He sang so high, sang like a woman, and I think that’s why I could sing along to the records!” says Kelley. However, her position in the group came to an end when she proposed they cover Dolly Parton songs. Her bandmates abruptly suggested she part ways with the group, which Kelley eventually embraced: “That was all right because it all turned out really well.” After moving on from that gig, Kelley began to pursue the bluegrass music that came to define her career as a writer and performer.
She’s had enviable success as a songwriter, with her co-written song, “A Little Bluer Than That,” being covered by country star Alan Jackson among others. For Kelley, every song has a story: “For each song, there’s a story or a chain of events that have been strung together to make them come to be.” “A Little Bluer Than That” was inspired by the memory of old photographs turning blue before they faded away. The memory didn’t fade: “I never forgot the image of that,” says Kelley. While the songwriter has a story associated with all of her work, her favorite part of songwriting is hearing the relationships that listeners form with her songs. The singer-songwriter fondly remembers all the times that fans have approached her to tell her about the ways they identify with and appreciate her music: “That makes it all worthwhile.” On her February 13 visit to Columbus, Kelley looks forward to forming new memories.