Country Music

Ruston Kelly Gives Houston a Musical TED Talk on Art and Sobriety

Ruston Kelly (R) and Bryan Dawley
Ruston Kelly (R) and Bryan Dawley Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

Last night, a bunch of Houstonians with sharp music sensibilities gathered at House of Blues’ Bronze Peacock Room to take in a set by country singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. He’s touring in support of his captivating new album, Dying Star. The rest of what you’d normally read here would be about the concert, how the audience received the songs in a live setting and such; but, this isn’t a review of that show. It’s a look back at the one Kelly did earlier in the day for a handful of invited guests at a Galleria-area eatery in a room that, somewhat ironically, surrounded him with hundreds of bottles of whiskey.

Kelly is a fine songwriter who has penned work for artists like Tim McGraw and Josh Abbott. He’s also a recovering addict whose journey with sobriety is still in its early steps. That journey is at the heart of Dying Star. Sitting with him for an hour as he plays selections from the album, you hear his honesty and ambition in the lyrics he’s matched to his melodies. Anyone at the House of Blues show last night must have heard that, but the lunch hour set at Bosscat Kitchen & Libations gave him an opportunity to expand on those themes.

The restaurant is rustic yet ornate and the space Kelly performed in is the Whiskey Room. Its dog-legged walls boast a few hundred bottles of it, all manner and ilk, and it’s not long before apologies are made for hosting him in this particular space. Kelly was quick to say no offense taken.

“It’s been since I was like 19 that I’ve had a clear outlook mentally on my life and perception wasn’t muddied by something,” he said, and noted he’s committed to sobriety but doesn’t begrudge those partying around him. “I enjoy absorbing merriment. I like having a good time. It doesn’t mean I have to wreck my life while I’m living it.”

He started his brief set with an intro to the song, “Faceplant,” which opens with the lines, “I took too many pills again/Blacked out for a week/Didn't eat, didn't sleep.”

“I wrote it next to a dumpster, very appropriately,” he said and launched into the song with the title based on skater vernacular for crashing. He was joined by musician Bryan Dawley, who plucked at a banjo while Kelly sang a song of failure, redemption and, ultimately, hope. The lasting lyrics of the track are “I've come too far to turn back now, come too far to turn back now.”

He called up the song, “Asshole,” based on a true story. Kelly is married to fellow artist Kacey Musgraves, who this year kicks off RODEOHOUSTON’s concert schedule on February 25. He said he’d been clean and happily married for a month when he was arrested.

“I called my wife from the back of a cop car. And I wrote a song about it,” he said.

The third verse of the song is simultaneously humorous and gut-wrenching. It goes, “My wife picked me up and she gripped the wheel/'How dare you, who are you?' and shit got real/She was crying, I was playing a game on my phone/Tryin' to think if there was any weed left at home.”

It’s a little bit punk rock, we noted once he was done.

“I got into Jackson Browne the same time I got into Kurt Cobain and the Misfits, shit like that. Slayer was a big influence,” he acknowledged. “Before I went and wrote the most sensitive songs in the world, I would listen to, like, Slipknot, who is currently my favorite band.”

His former life challenged those around him, including those he encountered professionally, he said. He and Houston’s own Hayes Carll teamed for “Love is So Easy,” from Carll’s 2016 album Lovers and Leavers. Someone asked about the collaboration.

“I see Hayes regularly, like we play some of the same festival circuits and to be a hundred percent honest, I was not sober during that write and I thought that I had ruined my career, because I really looked up to him and it was the first time that I’d met him before we were pals, and I went home and I thought I just bombed it. I was like, ‘This is the worst – he thinks I’m a hack.’

“And then he gave me a call back like a couple of weeks later and said, ‘I’m gonna put this on my record,” Kelly recalled. “He’s a really good guy.”

He said he prefers to collaborate with women, a point he made in a recent Rolling Stone article.

“I feel like it’s shocking in creative industries how much a feminine influence is kind of muffled in a sense, it has been historically. I know that’s kind of an obvious statement, but I witness it all the time in Nashville and the publishing side of things,” he said. “I do believe that the feminine side of everyone is the creative side of you. I feel like the male side is more like trying to get from point A to point B, or whatever. We have both.”

click to enlarge Kelly spoke frankly about his past and his ongoing sobriety - PHOTO BY JESSE SENDEJAS JR.
Kelly spoke frankly about his past and his ongoing sobriety
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

“I just feel like there’s a deep stream of wisdom from ages ago that women carry and I’m lucky enough to tap into it,” he concluded.

He can’t offer the entire set list – save some for the paying House of Blues crowd and all – but he played the album’s title track and snarked “it’s very uplifting.” Then he shifted gears and explained why it is actually uplifting.

“When a star dies, not only is it a beautiful supernova, and it’s one of the most galactically impressive things you can see, it also gives life to new stars.”

Maybe he views his former life as an explosion that gave birth to a million points of light all shining in the right direction?

“I’m sober now, which is great, because you probably wouldn’t want to hang out with me if I wasn’t. But being sober, you feel everything. Almost to like, 'Am I high? I’m not sure.' Or like, 'Am I the lowest I’ve ever felt in my life?' It’s just really acclimating to the vicious swings that you put yourself through, right?

“Experiencing life to the fullest – it’s not always the greatest thing in the world,” he continued. “That’s really what I had to come to terms with, to know that that’s okay to be that way, and to be like, okay, it’s not great day, that doesn’t mean you have to go and fix it, you just have to deal with it. That’s my PSA.”
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.