Holler Country Music

New Artist of the Week: Kimberly Kelly

March 14, 2023 12:00 pm GMT

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Kimberly Kelly's album title is inspired by the legendary confrontation that took place between Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver, after Shaver had forced his way into a recording session when Jennings tried to go back on his earlier invitation to come to Nashville to cut some of Shaver’s songs.

As legend has it, Shaver was growing increasingly impatient and frustrated by getting the brush off from Jennings after they’d met backstage a few months earlier. Countless calls and messages later, Shaver still hadn’t heard anything back from Jennings. He’d been chasing him all over Nashville - trying to get him to make good on that promise he made – and he eventually caught up with him at a recording session at RCA’s Studio A and waited patiently outside for him to come out.

When Jennings sent his right-hand man out to him with a hundred-dollar bill for him to go away, Shaver had had enough. He refused the money and pushed past him into the studio where he confronted Jennings and told him he was willing to fight him if he didn’t listen to his songs. "I'll tell you what's gonna happen,” Shaver told him. “You're gonna either listen to these songs or I'm gonna whip your ass."

Jennings told him he could play him one song at a time, if he liked it then Shaver could play him another. Three songs later, Jennings stopped him and told him he’d record every one of them and finally make a whole album of his songs.

The rest is history. Those songs eventually made up Jennings' 1973 Honky Tonk Heroes album, on which every song but one was written by Shaver. It was the record that began Jennings’ reinvention of himself and his group of misfits and malcontents as “jet-age cowboys” - the original progenitors of the outlaw country movement – and arguably began a wider shift in country music away from pop country and the Nashville sound and back towards an earthier, more traditionalist country sound.

It's fitting that Kimberly Kelly was inspired by an era of country music where artists like Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson were subverting the genre by looking backwards in order to move it on, because that exactly what she’s doing with I'll Tell You What's Gonna Happen. It’s also a fitting title for the record because Kelly has her own connection to one of the two men behind Honky Tonk Heroes.

Kelly met the late Billy Joe Shaver while she was still in college. "Billy Joe lived near us and told a family friend he owed her for helping him out of a bad real estate deal," Kimberly says. "She called me while I was making work tapes with some friends and brought him over to this studio we were in. He handed me a $500 check - the earnest money that family friend helped him get back - signed a copy of his autobiography, sat on a bucket, and asked me to play him a song. I had no idea who he was, but my friends were flipping out."

The family friend later brought Kimberly some marked-up CDs and said, "Learn these songs. You're playing mandolin with Billy Joe at Antone's in Austin this Saturday." She did, nailed the performance and met Dan Rather, who was doing a 60 Minutes special on the iconic Shaver. "Ever since, he's been a musical grandfather to me," Kelly says. "I opened shows for him, took him food over the holidays and introduced him to the Lorena, Texas bar where he, unfortunately, had to shoot a man in self defence several years later."

"David Macias of Thirty Tigers dared me to use the quote as my album title," Kelly says. "I was like, 'Sure. What do I care?' I did the Texas music scene, I’ve done time in Nashville, and I thought my time had passed when I got offered my deal. My husband could keep writing songs and I'd just be a speech therapist.”

That what-do-I-care sensibility is what gives the record its energy. It runs through every song, from boot-scootin dancefloor fillers like ‘Honky Tonk Town’ and ‘Blue Jean Country Queen’ to the laid-back country twang of ‘Why Can’t I’ and ‘Don’t Blame It On Me’.

Kelly is part of a wider return to a more classic country sound. Whether they’re getting it from relative outliers like Mike and the Moonpies and Summer Dean or more mainstream acts like Midland and Carly Pearce, there’s a hungry audience for country artists who take their musical cues from the neo-traditionalists of the 80s and the outlaw movement of the 70s, and Kimberly Kelly more than satisfies it.

A native of Lorena, Texas, Kelly has multiple connections to the Nashville industry, but she’s never been afraid to fly in the face of convention.

"This is not my first rodeo," she says of her label debut. "I worked really hard in Texas before I came to Nashville. I wrote songs, put out records, did a radio tour, and played every weekend while earning a Master's degree. They say don't have a 'plan B,' but I watched my mom struggle to get that next level of pay. My mom earned her bachelor's degree when she was 60, so school was important to me to know I could take care of myself."

Her sister Kristen signed to a Nashville label and charted a single in 2012, which gave Kimberly an early education, and she got to sing harmony with her on tours with Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts and Alan Jackson, which gave her the confidence to go out there on her own when the time came.

The album has a roll call of country songwriting royalty on its credit list from Jessi Alexander and Jessie Jo Dillon to Kelly’s husband and producer Brett Tyler. The jewel in the album’s crown comes with a Lori McKenna co-write on the characteristically poignant ‘Person That You Marry’. A perfect sketch of heartbreak and divorce that matches up to anything on Carly Pearce’s. 29: Written In Stone.

The record ends with a lively cover version of Billy Joe Shaver's ‘Black Rose’ and it’s a faultlessly fitting close to an album that pins its colours to a fashionably unfashionable side of country music.

"I made this record like it's the last one I'll ever get to make,” Kelly says, but when you make them as good as this it’s unlikely to be your last.

Holler sat down with Kimberly Kelly to talk about making the new album and how she got to where she got.

Where are you from and how did that influence you?

Being from Texas, I have an independent spirit. I have a saying, ‘Know how you can tell a Texan? You ain’t got to worry about it, they’ll tell you!’ Texas is known for dancehalls so my music is heavily influenced by those honky tonks.

What did you grow up listening to?

I grew up listening to country music, southern rock and popular music.

How would you describe your sound?

Neo-traditional country.

Tell us a little bit about making I'll Tell You What's Gonna Happen?

I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen was about letting the best songs win, and also introducing me and the style of country music I like to a wider audience. Musically I lean more traditional, so I wanted to make sure there were lots of harmonies, fiddle and steel. My husband produced the record, hired a live band, and we all just had a really good time. We made sure the music matched the sentiment of each song and also since I’m at a smaller label, we had a lot of freedom in the songs we were able to choose.

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Where’s the most unexpected place music has taken you?

I’ve played two parties for a former President, and also met Dan Rather at a "60 Minutes" taping for the late Billy Joe Shaver.

What inspires you?

Real life stories and emotions inspire me, traveling, and getting out into the world doing everyday things.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a singer do you think?

I have a Masters degree in Speech Pathology. I’d still be working as a speech therapist in the school system if I hadn’t signed a record deal.

You had a special relationship over the years with Billy Joe Shaver, can you tell us a bit about that?

I met Billy Joe through a family friend and didn’t know who he was when I met him. Because of that it enabled me to have a grandfather-granddaughter-type relationship. He was the first major player that took me under his wing and told me I was good. I opened shows for him, played with him, and my family looked after him a lot outside of music.

What would you put on a mixtape if you had to make one for Holler listeners?

Some 70’s and 90’s country, some southern rock, 90’s rap, and some current songs from my favorite songwriters.

What’s your all time favourite country song?

‘Too Cold at Home’ by Mark Chesnutt.

Which person from history would you most like to meet?

Abraham Lincoln.

What would be your Spice Girls style nickname?

Based on style I’d say ‘Angel Spice’ because I like to dress like the original Charlie’s Angels when the show first premiered. If it were based on my personality I’d be ‘Salty Spice,’ because I can be!

What advice would you give to the younger you?

Don’t worry so much. You’ve got a ways before you get there, but it’s all gonna work out!

What’s next for you?

I’m in the middle of a radio tour where I’m meeting radio programmers across the country that will hopefully play my upcoming radio single, ‘Summers Like That,’ and I’m playing a lot of shows!

"I'll Tell You What's Gonna Happen” is out now on Show Dog Nashville through Thirty Tigers

Written by Jof Owen
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