Best known for his marriage to country star Kacey Musgraves and for having written hits for the likes of Tim McGraw, Ruston Kelly’s debut album Dying Star indicates that he has the potential to become a star in his own right. He can write songs which recall the musings of Steve Earle or Ryan Adams and sing them in a finely grained voice with an attractive lack of polish. In addition, the songs are delivered for the most part in classic California country rock with keening pedal steel (played by Kelly’s father). They are bathed in melancholia and regret, stained with a faded grandeur as they surround you.
The album opens with a lush California sound on Cover My Tracks, awash with acoustic guitars and pedal steel and sweet harmonies which disguise the somewhat downbeat lyrics. Much of the album concerns the fallout of broken love affairs and the substances folk turn to to try and mend their hurt, the protagonists painted with fine brushstrokes as they try to make sense of their lives.
Faceplant and Blackout are strongly worded songs of drugs and despair and Big Brown Bus is like a modern version of Willin’ although this time it’s a lost passenger on a bus going through Texas who is using stimulants to keep his act together. The song opens as a pained piano ballad before swelling into a glorious cosmic Americana finale. There’s an almost palpable sense of sorrow and regret on Just for the Record, Anchors and Jericho but it’s on the title song where Kelly excels as his voice almost breaks while the band lay down a tender and enveloping cloud of pedal steel laced melancholia. It’s almost heartbreaking to listen to this song.
Kelly shows here that he is set to join the ranks of those Nashville based artists who are bucking the trend for radio friendly pop tunes as they use tradition to inform their music. In his case it’s to California that he has set his compass and anyone who digs the likes of Jackson Browne should certainly lend their ears to this.