Ruston Kelly Serenades a Brokenhearted Nashville in Ryman Debut

His emotional alt-country set featured wife Kacey Musgraves and more, just four nights after the tornado.

Written by Chris Parton
Ruston Kelly Serenades a Brokenhearted Nashville in Ryman Debut
Ruston Kelly; Photo credit: Steve Lowry

Alt-country favorite Ruston Kelly delivered an evening of emotional release in the midst of Nashville’s grieving Friday night (March 6), making his headline debut at the historic Ryman Auditorium.

Taking place just four nights after the tornado that claimed 25 lives in Middle Tennessee, the critically-acclaimed Dying Star singer peppered his set with surprises and scar-tissue serenades, chiseling out a cathartic mix of emo-rock and confessional songwriting with a seven piece country band.

Things were emotionally charged right from the start, as Kelly took the stage in a spine-tingling tribute to the week’s victims. Arriving in complete darkness with 25 silent figures standing behind him and a pair of massive, winged angels, he mimicked the eerie aftermath of the storm with the almost-overwhelming, “Hallelujah Anyways.”

From that moment on the crowd knew this show would mean something special, and in fact it would have been a milestone for Kelly even without the tragic circumstances. His Ryman debut also marked the end of his Dying Star tour, and his ascension from Nashville venues like the Basement East — which Kelly had played in the past and was destroyed last Monday night.

“It’s amazing to end it here,” Kelley told the crowd a few songs in. “I don’t know how many of you were at the Basement East shows. And whatever your reason for being here is, whatever you get out this, hopefully it’s what I get. Art is like weapon against lesser self. Lets f***ing go!”

Self-critical tracks like the weary “Cover My Tracks,” aching “Blackout” and the coming-down anthem, “Faceplant,” followed, which features a reference to Nashville’s devastated Germantown neighborhood and inspired a heartfelt proclamation about Kelly’s hometown. “Amidst what happened in the last couple of days, and all the destruction, tenfold the community strength has gathered together, ’cause this town is amazing,” he said to cheers from the audience. “F*** that tornado!”

Covers of Taylor Swift’s “All too Well” and Wheatus’ classic “Teenage Dirtbag” also elicited foot-stomping singalongs — both are featured on Kelly’s inventive Emo Dirt Vol. 1 EP — but the night’s most memorable moment was a special guest. Kelly is married to Grammy winner, Kacey Musgraves, and the country star arrived for a playful but poised duet on Kelly’s “Just for the Record” late in the set.

Locking eyes a various points and clearly smitten with their sandpaper-and-silk vocal blend, the performance was actually a kind of eulogy to the failed relationship which came before Musgraves … with Kelly explaining he couldn’t resist the irony of singing it now with the love of his life. “You have to know who you are before can truly give yourself to someone, but I was lucky enough to do it before,” Kelly said of his wife. “I was in coming out of the worst relationship of my life.”

“Same,” Musgraves added with a smirk.

The rest of the night features appearances by Natalie Hemby and Joy Williams on the transcendent “Jericho,” a surprise horn section walking through the crowd during “Mockingbird,” and the whole crowd chanting Kelly’s dad’s name (he plays steel guitar in the band, while Kelly’s sister sings backup vocals). But before finishing off with an encore of the confessional “Ass****,” he let some welcome news slip.

Even though his label asked him not to mention it, Kelly has a new album arriving in July, with the project’s first song set for April. Not content to leave us hanging, he also played his “favorite” track from the set, “Big,” — a heartfelt ode to his transformation from addict to trustworthy son and husband, all about not giving into the darkness he portrayed so well early in the show. He dedicated it to his mother.