Before forming Louis York and making the move to Nashville in 2016, Kelly and Harmony spent a decade working as songwriters and producers for legendary artists including Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Janet Jackson. Kelly’s name is behind such hits as Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” and “Grenade” by Bruno Mars, while Harmony’s production efforts on Ne-Yo’s Year of the Gentleman scored a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year in 2009.
The two eventually broke away from the mainstream music industry to create an outlet to express their own ideologies in the form of Weirdo Workshop, an artist collective headquartered in Franklin, Tenn. just outside of Nashville. Inside the walls of Weirdo Workshop, Louis York created a vision board symbolizing all of the goals they wanted to accomplish in Nashville – making their Grand Ole Opry debut was one of them. “There’s certain places in America that you don’t know how you know about them,” Kelly contemplates poised in the duo’s studio, comparing the Opry to iconic venues including Madison Square Garden, Lincoln Center and the Hollywood Bowl. “As long as I’ve been a student of music, it’s been one of those milestones that you think if I ‘make it,’ then this would determine me making it.”
Growing up in St. Louis, Mo., Harmony recalls watching a live performance of Johnny Cash on the Grand Ole Opry, believing it was that moment that instilled his desire to perform in the hallowed hall. “Being from East St. Louis, I would’ve never dreamed that I would be on that stage…That’s the power of intention because I probably saw that in my subconscious, I wanted to be on that stage,” he reflects on the striking memory. “The fact that it’s so respected and it’s been the standard for so long, when something lasts that long, there has to be some reverence that you put on it. It’s almost like you’re required to revere that place.”
Louis York finally made it to the country music mecca in 2019 when Jimmie Allen invited them to perform their collaborative duet, “Teach Me a Song,” with him on the Opry. “Teach Me a Song” is featured Louis York’s debut album, American Griots, and after two guest performances with Allen, the Opry officially invited the duo to make their debut in February 2020. Strutting on to the stage in Elvis-inspired ensembles – Kelly in a denim jumpsuit accented with tinsel-like fringe and Harmony in a stunning denim jacket adorned with elaborate patchwork and jeweled fringe to match – their presence could be felt from the back of the Opry house. “It felt important,” Kelly recalls of standing in the coveted circle. “It didn’t feel like we were just on a small stage.” A hush fell over the room as they performed “Teach Me a Song” – “important lyrics and melodies coming together to move people,” Kelly described – and current radio single “How Will I Feel,” a thought-provoking ballad that ponders how one might feel if they choose their comfort zone over a potentially life-changing experience.
“Even going into the Opry, what I was most proud of is that our songs weren’t farfetched. Even if two black men are farfetched doing their debut at the Opry, our songs weren’t,” Harmony explains of the universal messaging in their music. “‘How Will I Feel’ and ‘Teach Me a Song’ fit right on in there with the history…It translated so well to those people. It was nice, it was not foreign. There was actually a few people backstage that said, ‘it’s such a familiar feeling, reminds me of why I first fell in love with country music.’”
“It’s not about race. It’s about chasing a certain authentic feeling. When you hear ‘Teach Me a Song’ and ‘How Will I Feel,’ what we were attempting to do with the album and those songs specifically was to create soundtracks for the culture the way we grew up with listening to soundtracks of the culture,” Kelly elaborates. “For me, it’s always been about your heart takes you and the rest of you follows. That’s our love for this thing and those songs specifically speak to that original love.”
Louis York also sees their debut as a ripple effect. With the Opry opening its arms to a multi-genre act that thrives in all types of musical environments, they hope it forges a path that leads many more dynamic artists to the Opry’s door, especially those who may feel that the historic venue is out of reach. “I think that the Opry took a risk on us and I think it paid off. So I think they have a great taste in their mouth about what it was like to take a risk on diversity,” Kelly observes. “It might be an opportunity for artists who could really do some amazing things on that stage to be able to do that.” “I think our presence can open up a lot of doors for diverse things to happen at the Opry too. So we’re looking forward to hopefully being facilitators of some of that,” notes Harmony.
The duo is motivated to continue growing with the Opry as it progresses and diversifies, hoping to introduce Weirdo Workshop’s all-female trio, The Shindellas, to the Opry audience during future appearances. “We always like to push the envelope creatively, so we want to do many more songs there and try on new things,” Kelly alludes.
As passionate music pioneers, Louis York will continue to create art that puts forth inspiring messages of social awareness, empathy and love – core values they’ll take with them to the Opry and the many other legendary stages they’re destined to grace. “We’re the kind of people where if you crack the door open, we’re going to bust it wide open. But it’s going to be great,” Kelly promises. “You’re not going to regret it.”