“I wouldn’t have been able to make this record unless I got clean, unless I found what sobriety meant to me. Not what it meant for someone else.”
Ruston Kelly is sitting at a corner table at a popular neighborhood pub in East Nashville. He has a natural ease about him, quick with a smile and genuinely interested in those around him. Only a couple minutes inside the door, he’s already made friends with a fellow patron. Unsurprisingly, he’s one of the rare interviewees who asks questions in return.
Over the course of one hour and one slow-sipped beer — Kelly’s quick to note that, while he is firmly off hard drugs, he still enjoys unwinding with a brew or two — Kelly shares the origin story of his new album Dying Star, and offers, in frank terms, how its creation played an integral part in his long journey away from substance abuse.
“I decided I was going to use this record as a way to deal with that sense and learn who I am creatively,” he says. “This is what I did way before drugs ever came into play. Drugs were such a lie about how to create for me, and it hijacked my sense of natural creativity.”
A South Carolina native, Kelly spent much of his early life moving around with his family, calling Alabama, Belgium, and Michigan home at various points. He was a talented competitive figure skater as a teen and began writing songs around the same time, a hobby that likely owes to the influence of his father, pedal steel guitarist Tim “TK” Kelly. While living in Brussels, Kelly fell in love with the music of the Carter Family and soon afterward moved to Nashville at 17 to pursue music in earnest.
He eventually landed a publishing deal with BMG Nashville, scoring a couple cuts (Tim McGraw’s “Nashville Without You,” to name one) but still feeling artistically unfulfilled. In 2017, he released his own music, the 10-track EP Halloween, produced by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes), which introduced Kelly as a promising young songwriter in the vein of early Ryan Adams. A mix of songs, found noise, and spoken-word interludes, the EP hinted at what would come from Dying Star in its frank depictions of substance abuse and the ensuing fallout.
Dying Star is Kelly’s proper debut album, and his first with label Rounder Records. As he explains it, he wrote the bulk of the songs after experiencing a drug overdose that rattled him to his core.
“About six months after making Halloween, my drug intake skyrocketed,” he says. “There was some family stuff going on and life was hitting me in the face, knocking my teeth out. I overdosed in December  and I luckily came to. My girlfriend at the time shook me awake. I went to the hospital and they pumped me with fluids and shit and I was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing? My god.’”
After he came home from the hospital, Kelly found himself standing on his porch, wondering what it would finally take for him to kick his drug habit and get his life back on track. The words “dying star” came to him and he got to work, both on making an album and finding a way to stay clean.
Kelly produced the album alongside Jarrad K, known for his work with an eclectic roster of acts that includes Kate Nash and Weezer and who helped Kelly blend his myriad influences — spanning everything from folk icons Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie to emo acts Dashboard Confessional and Taking Back Sunday (“I had a hair swoop back in the day”) — into a cohesive sound. Jarrad, who moved to Nashville from Los Angeles at Kelly’s urging, also served as a friend and support for Kelly, who weathered a couple of relapses after his overdose.
“I’d been awake for like six days, my longest stretch of time. [Jarrad] had a sweetness to him, a gentle spirit, but he also had this powerful creativity about him that extended beyond him just checking on me when I overdosed,” says Kelly “He came in and was really a friend for me. When I was trying to get over this stuff and really trying to stay clean, he’d be like, ‘You know, that song you just wrote, why don’t we go in my studio and fuck with it?’ Those sessions were basically pre-production for Dying Star. He helped me get back on my feet and get to work.”
One of those early songs is “Faceplant,” an infectious, tongue-in-cheek song about hitting rock bottom that pays homage to folk traditions with simple repetitive verses and turnarounds that recall songs from Guthrie and John Prine. The track is the product of a writing exercise Kelly began prior to completing Dying Star in which he’d write one song each day in only half an hour.
“It seems like some of my favorite songs have almost like a nursery rhyme vibe to them,” he says. “Maybe that comes from the fact that I really started writing songs and taking the craft of songwriting seriously, or at least enjoying the process of learning how I can make songs my own. A folk melody can exist uniquely but also still be somewhat familiar to you.”
The track explores addiction with levity, and manages to do so in a way that neither trivializes nor glamorizes drug use. Where other tracks on Dying Star take on a dark tone, “Faceplant” finds necessary lightness.
“My living situation at the time was so dark and so fucked up that I had to find a way to laugh at it,” Kelly says. “That takes the power out. When people suffer from depression or anxiety or any sort of pain/mental anguish combo, being able to take the power out of it through laughter is a pretty powerful tool.”
Much of Dying Star finds Kelly trying to make sense of himself and how he relates to the world around him. In attempting to do so, he found a source of healing and stability that contributed greatly to his ability to stay clean. “I feel the most centered in my life when I’m performing a song,” he says. “I don’t know what that really says about performers’ psyches, that we feel very at peace in front of people baring your soul about very un-peaceful situations, but I would say it did help me.”
In “Blackout,” Kelly sings, “I get so fucked up to forget who you are and dumb down my head so I can’t feel my heart pound,” supported by guest vocalists and fellow songwriters Kate York and Joy Williams. Kelly’s been a vocal supporter of female artists, and put his money where his mouth is by inviting York, Williams, Natalie Hemby, Abby Sevigny and his wife, Kacey Musgraves, to join him on Dying Star. While explaining his decision to work with women, he recalls his days at BMG, when he told his publisher, “I’m not sure if this is reverse sexist, but really please only put women on my calendar from here on out, because these guys come in here and think they have giant balls and they don’t really even know how to write a song. I can actually learn from Lori McKenna.
“I’ve always, always, always gotten along better creatively with the feminine spirit,” he adds. “I think it’s been proven time and time again that the quality songs, the substantial songs that have value, in my opinion, always come from women. A Hillary Lindsey song or a Natalie Hemby song is always going to beat out a Rodney Clawson or Craig Wiseman bullshit song… And we’re making some headway in that department, to an extent, but as long as you have a male program director, shit’s going to get slimy.”
Alongside Dying Star‘s lineup of featured women, Kelly invited his father. For the elder Kelly, the experience was a first not only for working with his son, but also because there was some psychedelic experimentation happening in the studio.
“I was like, ‘Dad, look. Before we go out here, you know I don’t do any of that pill shit anymore and I’m working on that, but I do like to experience different lanes of expression and different mindsets, and there’s probably going to be some psychedelic use,’” he says. “And he’s like, ‘Whaddya mean, psychedelics?’ And I told him mushrooms. And he’s like, ‘Well I’ve got one thing to say about that: I’ll be alright with it if you give me some of them.’ He ate a whole fucking mushroom. [When] it was his turn to go in and lay down a solo, we had to walk him into the booth and he sat down and goes, ‘Where’s my steel?’ and laid down the sickest thing you’ve ever heard. It almost brought us to tears.”
Musgraves, meanwhile, sings backing vocals on “Just for the Record,” a tender ballad about reflecting on past wrongs in a cherished relationship, her reedy alto providing a sturdy foundation for Kelly’s emotive grit. The two married in late 2017 after becoming engaged in 2016, and Kelly cites Musgraves as a major factor in maintaining his recovery and finding peace.
“She was such a strong redemptive force in my life,” he says. “I didn’t think I was worthy of anything. She reminded me that it doesn’t matter, that everyone has a past. Someone has to help pick you up somehow.”
On Dying Star, Kelly finds his redemption: musically, personally, spiritually. In that sense, it’s more than just an album for him; it’s rebirth.
“What I’m really thankful for is living out the theme of this record: Dying Star being something where you do have to put something to death for something to live again, for you to feel like your own ‘phoenix’ story,” he says. “Get out of there. Be someone new. You can be whoever the fuck you want to be in a song.”