CMIL Artist of the Week: Kristen Kelly

Written by SLN Staff Writer
CMIL Artist of the Week: Kristen Kelly

The word “believe” is tattooed on the right wrist of singer Kristen Kelly, and it’s the most important lesson she’s learned.

“If you’ve got a dream, keep dreaming,” the newcomer says. “Believe. Ten years ago, I’d have never dreamed I’d be sitting right here, but I am.”

“Here” is with a new label – Arista Nashville, the same as Carrie Underwood – and an album in the works. “Here” is being teamed up with songwriter Paul Overstreet (who has two GRAMMYs under his belt) and producer Tony Brown (who has nine CMA Awards).

But before she got here, Kristen had to start somewhere. She started in Waco, Texas, on self-described “simple country living.” “You blink, you miss it,” she says of her 10-acre childhood home.

Unlike some musicians, she laid a foundation for songwriting early finding a love of poetry while she was in middle school. She sang in talent shows, her high school choir, and wherever else she could. Her family influenced her a great deal, with her grandfather, Sterling Kelly, being a country musician himself, and her father introducing her to classic rock and a willingness to work. “He’s a simple, hard-working man who never quits – and I think that’s where I get some of my ‘workaholic’ from is him,” she says.

“I grew up in love with music,” she states. Music like The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Seger, and Ray Charles. “I fell in love with the blues,” she adds.

Most notably, Merle Haggard was her biggest influence. “I think I’m such a big fan of Merle Haggard’s music and his songwriting because it’s simple. I’ve always believed that country music was three chords and the truth, and that’s more or less what he did – and what all the great blues musicians did,” Kristen explains.

Kristen didn’t start playing blues, or even country music. Her first gig was with a classic rock cover band that invited her to sing with them in 2001, and that’s where her love for performing began. She stayed with them for three years, but in 2004, decided to get a two-year degree in music at Waco’s McLennan Community College.

It was there, in her final semester, that she and her friend Joe Churchill got together and wrote their self-released album “The Highway Is My Home.” Released under Modern Day Drifters, they expanded their duo and received praise from all around Texas for their music. However, in 2008, Joe left the band to get back to more traditional country roots, and Kristen spearheaded the group herself.

She was noticed by Paul Overstreet in 2010 while she was performing as Kristen Kelly and the Modern Day Drifters, and he invited her to write with him. “Paul got the ball rolling,” she admits. But she has kept it going – her songwriting, which had started in 2004, was impressive enough to land her a record deal.

“I have a hard time singing or writing about something I can’t relate to,” she shares. “I’m a happy person, but what I write has a lot of angst and realness to it, whether it’s something that I’ve personally experienced or somebody close to me has experienced. To be able to give voice to pain that I’ve felt, to be able to say ‘it hurts’ when it hurts, is part of my music. And if something I’ve gone through helps somebody get through something in their life, then I think that’s the ultimate reward for being a survivor.”

Though her writing is impressive, her singing is as well. She connects with the music so well that it’s hard to not believe her – or believe in her – as she pours her heart into the lyrics, bringing back her blues influences and rock accents. It’s not an overproduced sound; in fact, her music is “a little more grease than polish.” But it’s honest and relatable, as she is.

“Believe” is a message she sees every day, and it’s helped her secure her career. “There’ve been little signs along the way,” she says. “I’m no holy roller, but it’s like, ‘All right, I’m listening.’ I see it, I hear it, I feel that little nudge – and I’m gonna go with it.”

Her debut album is set to be released soon, but you can catch her at the 3rd Annual CountryMusicIsLove Concert Benefiting City of Hope on Tuesday, February 21 at the Exit/In in Nashville, TN. Michael Ray, Chris Cavanaugh, THE FARM, JT Hodges, Chuck Wicks, Love and Theft, Casey James, and Craig Campbell will also perform. Whitney Duncan, who will host the event for the second year, will also perform. Get your tickets NOW!

-Kathryn Paulson, CMIL Intern