Every genre wants to own Irene Kelley. Her effervescent pure vocals like the virgin waters gushing out of the mountain peaks make it the perfect vehicle to carry a bluegrass tune especially those with an Appalachian charm. Her ability to weave vignettes of life into her narrative songs with keening observations is what makes country music flourish. Yet, the first genre that had had ever laid a claim on Irene Kelley is heavy metal. Back in High School, Kelley started playing in a Led Zeppelin cover band only to be kicked out of it when she suggested that they do a Dolly Parton piece. Ever since, Kelley has made a name for herself as one of Nashville's finest scribes. Over the years, she has had written songs for Loretta Lynn ("Hold Her"), Alan Jackson ("A Little Bluer Than That"), Trisha Yearwood ("Second Chance" and 'O Mexico") among many others. Though she has had a few false starts, Kelley has finally been able to bless us with two albums of her own; both of which have been national treasures in the world of country/bluegrass music.
"Pennsylvania Coal" is Kelley's long awaited follow-up since "Thunderbird" which was released a decade ago. Kelley has proven the adage right: third time's the charm. If her previous albums demonstrate chapters of greatness, "Pennsylvania Coal" is the textbook of everything a sublime bluegrass cum country ought to sound like. Just like what Kathy Mattea did with her record "Coal," Kelley has allowed her hillbilly soul to skip back to her home town where she unearth some of her own stories of the joys and tribulations of growing up in a coal mining town. And when Kelley re-paints her stories, she hardly paints in large and broad strokes. Rather, she intricately outlines her plot before slowly coloring into each character the different emotional shades that often brings tears to our eyes and celebratory joy to our souls. With a sepia tone underpinning, Kelley gently takes us back to the time of her grandparents in the title cut "Pennsylvania Coal." Like the unrolling of a movie reel, she brings us into the struggles of how her Polish grandparents bought a 200-acre farm in Crabtree in order to raise eight children. The way they struggled to make ends meet with her granddad later dying of lung cancer after the years of working in a coal mine just makes it hard not to fight back the tears.
Melancholy gets more attention with "Feels Like Home." Not the Linda Ronstadt tune of the same titular, "Feels Like Home" is a Peter Cooper and Kelley original that speaks of how things do not stay the same with the passing of time. Slightly more propulsive via its chugging rhythm but still as morose in terms of its lyrical content is the banjo and fiddled led "You Don't Run Across Your Mind." While many artists are often so self-indulgent in telling their own stories that they don't engage much of the listener, this is not the case with Kelley. With the heart-wrenching ballad "Things We Never Did," it is as if Kelley has read our personal blogs when she, David Olney and John Hatley re-visit the various "what if" scenarios of our lives. What if we dated so and so. What if we have followed the path less travelled. What ifs have never pierced our hearts the way it does on "Things We Never Did."
You can't listen to a Kelley album without traverse with her all over the emotional map. And she does make an occasional stop on a more joyous spot with "You Are Mine." Sounding like the 21st Century of the famed trio of Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, here Kelley joins voices with her daughters Justyna and Sara Jean on this beautiful ode to friendship, love and togetherness. With "Angels with Us" she pays her tribute a generation back where she sings of her mother's teaching to her that God will never leave us alone in our times of need. In short, this is an album that will get us crying, laughing and thinking, not because it is emotionally manipulative. But because it captures with details of what life is all about.