The songs on John Kelly’s new album range in mood and tempo from Americana to rock to country and back again. In terms of subject matter, they aim straight for the heart that has been broken and rebuilt.
Kelly will release “In Between” on major streaming platforms on June 26. The album release party he had planned for April at The Front Porch got sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic, but he knows how to be patient; the collection itself took two years to crystallize.
“I had no sense when I started this that it would be such a long process,” Kelly said.
The singer-songwriter teamed up with guitarist and producer Rusty Speidel to make sure all 10 songs were ready to present. Taking his time helped Kelly process the events that inspired many of his songs; “Freedom’s Song,” for instance, is his response to the violence he witnessed in downtown Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017 — and the song he never thought he’d write.
Kelly was downtown working with a National Geographic crew on “America Inside Out with Katie Couric,” a documentary series on race in America, when the violence unfolded.
“It doesn’t seem real when you see the images” of the violence following the Unite the Right rally that left Heather Heyer dead, many others injured and a community in shock, Kelly said. “When you see it for real, it grounds you in a different way. It takes away that default of ‘This can’t be. This can’t be happening.’
“I don’t think I went through [those events] with an artist’s eye. I don’t think in that moment I thought about reacting to it or writing about it. I became able to look back with a sense of perspective.’’
Time and reflection eventually brought him to a place where he could write, “That’s my brother crying in the street./That’s my sister lying at my feet./Freedom’s song’s not complete till everybody sings.”
Kelly sought input from Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, before releasing the song. Her blessing “meant the world to me,” he said.
“Freedom’s Song,” Kelly said, can “challenge people to ask themselves that question: ‘What do I need to be doing?’
“These are not the things people are focused on, but these are things we need to be focused on. It’s terrible that it’s absolutely as relevant as it has been in the past few weeks.”
“Bronze and Stone” is Kelly’s reaction to the Gen. Robert E. Lee statue at the center of the agonizing day.
Speidel and Kelly brought together a who’s who of local talent to record the album, including Michael Clem on guitar, Paul Rosner on drums and Chris Holden on keyboards, plus guest musicians Nate Leath on fiddle, Michael Lille on guitar and banjo, James McLaughlin on drums and Justin Storer on backing vocals. McLaughlin also recorded and mixed the album at his Charlottesville studio.
The title of the album comes from “Beginning, End and In Between,” a tribute to Kelly’s wife, flutist Angela Kelly, and their enduring marriage.
“When I write a song, it’s not finished until she has heard it,” he said. “It’s a great situation for a musician to be in, because she is such an accomplished musician. When she likes something, that means a lot.”
Kelly said that their shared love of music has deepened their bond as a couple. “From the time we met in the mid-’90s, she has been the biggest champion of my music,” he said.
Their daughter, Sam, who’s studying medicine at the University of Richmond, contributed backing vocals to “In Between.” Son Chris, 17, also is a musician; the guitarist and vocalist performs in the band 14 Stories.
Another song on the album pays tribute to Kelly’s father, who died in 2013.
“Good One There” honors a man who died at 91 after a full life that included caring for his wife and inspiring his five children, 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
“I didn’t walk out of the hospital thinking I’d write a song,” Kelly said. But before he knew it, Kelly had “a rare, fully formed song” — one that resonates with audiences in a way that took Kelly by surprise at first, but eventually made sense in light of the life his father lived.
“It’s a tribute song for my dad, but when I play it, it resonates with more people than I realized,” he said. “My dad, in life, was a great connector.”
The wistful “St. Catherine’s Fair” looks back in time to the wonders of a church fair that seemed to capture the magic of childhood, “when everything felt possible,” Kelly said. “Bad Judgment Day,” on the other hand, is a gospel-flavored road to redemption for another character who’s old enough to know better.
Hope for the future on “In Between” is in good hands, thanks to the nation’s young people. Kelly wrote “Let the Children Sing” in honor of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who rose up in their grief to become activists after a 2018 school shooting. “I feel we’re in incredibly good hands,” Kelly said.
For “Let the Children Sing,” Kelly, Speidel and the team assembled a choir that included Chris and Angela Kelly; Ann, Bryce and Stella Kellams; Karin, Izzy and Ella Reed; Gus and Rob Wise, Hayden Peper; and Marcus Beaufort.
At this point, Kelly can only guess when he will release his next collection.
“My last record was in 1997, so I’m good for an album every 23 years, whether you need it or not,” he said. “Like an extended cicada or something.”
For information, go online to jkelly songs.com.