Critically acclaimed roots maverick Ruston Kelly take a serious look at an often-mocked sub-genre in his new EP, Dirt Emo Vol. 1, uncovering the artistic merit and connections between acts as diverse as The Carter Family, Blink 182 and Taylor Swift.
Out now, the eight-song project was co-produced by Kelly and Jarrad K and features almost-unrecognizable covers of some of emo’s most iconic songs — and others you never thought of as emo to begin with — with Kelly stripping them down to their bare-hearted elements. Presented in the quiet style of a late-night bedroom session, each of the diverse tracks is relieved of its rock, pop punk or country framework, serving to reveal the powerful writing underneath.
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dirt emo vol 1 out now 🤮 @jbamn and I wanted these recordings to feel like you’re sitting on the floor with us (we recorded a lot of this sitting on the floor) sapping around in your camo shirt angsty af tonguing your lip ring all laryngitis-y cuz you can’t stop screaming at your parents to let you take the truck to warped tour 🤮 link in bio /// thank you to everyone especially Eric who added their talent and skill to making this come to life
It’s an interesting, ambitious and well-executed project that may inspire some to rethink their criticism of emo in the first place, but Kelly says his true mission was just to record the songs he grew up with, in the style he learned to play them. Even though some come from opposite ends of the musical spectrum, he’s always seen the similarities between them.
“The common thread was how I learned all of those songs,” Kelly explains, speaking by phone with Sounds Like Nashville before a tour stop in Salt Lake City. “My dad plays steel guitar and there was always a mandolin around the house, or a fiddle, banjos, all these Americana/folk instruments, and those were the songs I was interested in. So he taught me how to play guitar and when we would jam, these songs have always had a tinge of folkiness to them for me.”
Like many kids of the ‘90s and early 2000s, Kelly says he found a much needed emotional outlet in the work of emo artists. He latched on to music which convey a young adult’s sadness, confusion or anxiety with a complete lack of shame – but admits that as the emo approach became more successful, it became a “schtick.” Emo kids were taunted and the music itself was disregarded as immature, but Kelly would like to reclaim the movement’s good name.
“Yeah, I would like to do that with my music,” he admits. “I guess to rectify the sentiment that you’re weak if you express weakness – I actually think it makes you a stronger person. I mean, whether you do it externally or internally, to acknowledge some sort of weakness or sadness or some deficiency, whether it’s personal or social, you have to do that in order to grow from it.”
Kelly knows from experience. His critically-acclaimed 2018 album debut, Dying Star, often found him pulling inspiration from the depths of his own addiction, an experience which led to a near-fatal overdose in late 2015. He’s been sober in the years since and is now married to Grammy winning country star Kacey Musgraves, but still knows well the personal torment that drove so much of the emo scene. It’s had such a huge influence on him, in fact, he states proudly that he does not make country music – he makes Dirt Emo. “That’s just where I’m at right now,” he explains. “I just always want to be able to create something original.”
Dirt Emo Vol. 1 is certainly that, pulling an invisible string between seemingly random elements and forcing a serious conversation about what emo music really “is” – a flash-in-the-pan phase of pop music? Or something more eternal, still be bubbling under the surface today? To drive that point home, he presents each in spacious, often-acoustic style, letting the lyrics linger free from any sonic distractions. The approach forces listeners to, for once, take each track seriously.
“That instrumentation lends itself to a feeling of authentic tenderness in my opinion,” Kelly says. “When I was a kid, breaking up with a girl and whining about it was actually really important to me. I felt like, as an adult, you could express the same sentiment but using [different] instrumentation.”
First up is one of the genre’s founding documents, Dashboard Confessional’s “Screaming Infidelities.”
“It was one of the first songs that taught me what an emotional song was, and that you could achieve this monumental catharsis alone in your room with a guitar,” Kelly explains, saying the original’s muddy, open-tuning guitar style is now “all over” his own songs – especially the ones on Dying Star. “That song in particular, it was just a generational anthem. For my teen years especially, what kid can’t relate to screaming that song in their room?”
With just a piano and some tasteful atmospheric effects underpinning the track, Kelly was able to make the cover even more of a coup by recruiting its orginal singer, Chris Carrabba, to join in. The pair met at a show in Nashville and then reconnected later on, and despite knowing how big of an ask it was for Carrabba to re-record his own iconic hit, the emo icon was all for it.
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@dashboardconfessional has been and remains one of my biggest creative influences. This song is the quintessential unabashed and unafraid confessional song of my generation. My sister @abigailsevigny and I grew up on this style, greatly affecting the way we would present words to the world. It wasn’t just punk kids being sensitive it was an instant community of saying it’s ok to feel and also share those feelings with the world. Be heartbroken. Fucking cry about it it feels good. Free therapy really. So for her and I (and of course MF @teakelly1 on steel) to sing this with the King of Emo himself is so special. Download it now and get ready for the rest LFG 🤮 special thanks to @s_kinigopoulos for the video magic @electraking for the album shot and of course the intrepid producer @jbamn at the helm 🤮
“He was just really enthusiastic and supportive about it,” Kelly explains. “He came to the studio and we kicked it for a minute. It was just surreal. Me and my producer, we were at the board in the control room, like, instructing Chris Carrabba how to sing this massive song of his. … He was such a huge influence on me. He was so important, like to the fact that I took a picture of him to my barber and was like ‘Will you cut my hair like this?’”
Elsewhere Kelly presents rootsy versions of Wheatus’ fun-filled but self-loathing “Teenage Dirtbag” (twice, in fact – once live and once in a studio version), Blink 182’s sarcastic sadsack anthem, “Dammit,” and two tracks which highlight the depth of the emo tradition: The Carter Family’s “Weeping Willow” (recorded in 1927 but likely dating back much farther) and Swift’s “All Too Well” from 2012.
“I just think it goes to show that emo music has always existed,” he explains. “That Taylor Swift song is so emo, but ‘Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow’ might be the first emo song ever written. It’s literally like ‘I’m gonna bury myself because you left me for somebody else’ – that’s hardcore, it’s dark.”
Each is quite different, but similar in their angsty inward focus. And in a way, that juxtaposition makes a case that all music on the bluesy, sad side of the spectrum, is “emo” at its core.
“I mean, it’s part of the human condition, pain and suffering,” Kelly says. “I feel like art is a way to relieve yourself of the human condition, and those are big themes in being a human.”
Kelly is currently on tour and beginning work on his second studio album, then hopes to tackle “volume two” of the Dirt Emo project. He just announced his headline debut at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, set for March 6 of 2020.