Ruston Kelly released his debut album, “Dying Star,” on September 7th, 2018. Many who follow the country music scene may recognize his name as the husband of Kacey Musgraves, but marrying Musgraves is not where Kelly’s music career began. He began as a songwriter, landing a publishing deal with BMG Nashville in 2013 and penning “Nashville Without You” for Tim McGraw. Last year he released an EPcalled “Halloween.”
“Dying Star” opens with “Cover My Tracks,” a mid-tempo song with a minor key chorus that wouldn’t have been completely out of place on Counting Crows’ August and Everything After. In other words, delivered with a vibe that’s accessible, but bittersweet. In the second track, “Mockingbird,” Kelly delivers a song more comfortably within the Americana wheelhouse with a Ryan Adams inspired vocal timbre, sang from the throat. With some nice acoustic guitar finger picked flourishes to open and close.
That’s when my favorite song on “Dying Star” comes in.
“Son of a Highway Daughter” has a Bon Iver style vocoder effect in the extended intro before a lonely steel guitar gives a false start. Patiently, Kelly sings his way through 2/3 of the play time, then a driving acoustic leads the band into a syncopated bridge, that ends with cymbal hits and a big vocal ending from Kelly. A pretty adventurous take for track three on a country album. Also, the best song on the album. Check it out here:
“Paratrooper’s Battlecry” turns us back to Americana country with an acoustic ballad about hard times with a first verse that mentions both Jesus and reefer. And a chorus that ends with the line “barely living and almost dead,” before a turnaround with acoustic fingerpicking. Second verse, Kelly is sick of this and tired of that, and mentions some female names (Loraine and Maria). Everything sounds good, but if you’re a fan of this genre, you may already have a song that uses many of these tricks.
“Faceplant” is a song written around the sunk cost fallacy “gone too far to turn back now.” A harmonica solo leads to an interesting chromatic walk down that adds some tension before a vocal-led breakdown that gently releases us to the next track.
Where a harmonica picks things right back up and leads us into “Blackout.” Which is another country ballad, so this is this is where the album finds it’s footing after the experimental track “Son of a Highway Daughter,” which I would’ve obviously been happy to hear more of. “Blackout” is essentially a song about succumbing to substance use to sort through emotional problems. Never a good idea in real life, but a tried and true solution in the sad worlds of country music protagonists. Kelly admits that “No, I ain’t doing too well, but I’ve found a few things that help”:
I blackout in a bar. I get high in my car. I drive round in circles. Til I’m seeing stars. I get so fucked up to forget who you. I dumb down my head, so I can’t hear my heart pound… I blackout.
What could work as a confession at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (which is probably the point), here, is set to a spot-on 6/8 time country ballad.
“Mercury ” opens with a chord sequence making great use of a secondary dominant chord moving from F / C / E MAJOR / Am. Which has a fantastic ear-opening effect, but then Kelly backs off of it, never returning to the chord throughout the song. The end result is a four chord country infused power ballad in the key of C.
“I don’t blame you for the fact that you blame me,” Kelly sings on “Just for the Record.” “And I won’t hate you if you want to forget me.” It’s a very straightforward country-style heartbroken ballad. Where he earnestly seeks to straighten out the record for a lover who thinks it was all just smoke and a joke, because “just for the record I really loved you.” The song seems like maybe something Kelly should’ve sold to a more mainstream country artist with less natural talent than himself.
“Dying Star” is a bit front loaded, as the rest of the six tracks on the album stay in this dark, ballad motif. Still, the album is worth a stream to hear a new talent, Ruston Kelly, on his debut full length release. Especially if you’re already a fan of the broader Americana scene: Ryan Adams, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Tyler Childers, and Brent Cobb.
In time, and with some growth as an album writer (he’s already a solid songwriter), maybe some further exploration of the experimental tendencies he hints at on Dying Star (especially “Son of a Highway Daughter”), and staying away from some of the more cliched ballads that fill out the second half, and maybe with a few songs that genuinely rock, there’s a chance Kelly will be another important talent in the continually developing Americana scene.