Standing at just 5’2”, with hair reminiscent of Farah Fawcett ala Charlie’s Angels and enough pearl snaps and fringe to rival Reba at the rodeo, Kimberly Kelly is a force to reckoned with. Born just outside of Waco, Texas, Kelly’s childhood was one steeped in the sounds of Western Swing and traditional Honky Tonk tunes. With her first EP since 2010, released on August 31, Kelly pays homage to the music she was so lovingly surrounded by throughout her upbringing. Lula 1892 had a chance to catch up with Kelly, now a Nashville resident, to chat about how she discovered her own voice and the process behind Don’t Blame it on Me.
There is a seasoned richness to Kelly’s voice from the opening note of “Prayer and a Six Pack” right on through to the end of the EP. Listeners would never guess from these five polished tracks that Kelly was too shy to sing anywhere even slightly public (including in front of her family) until she was a teenager. “I had always told myself that I wanted to be a singer or that I could sing, but I never actually said it out loud until the end of high school. I wrote my first song right around the time LeAnn Rimes started becoming popular, but I didn’t take it seriously until much later. LeAnn Rimes actually really helped me realize I could sing, because I could get on tune with her and really sing along. I always have and still do get really shy, so when I finally told my mom I thought I could sing in high school, I told her she had to turn around backwards and close her eyes before I could do it.”
Though Kelly eventually did recognize that her talent for making music matched her passion for it, moving to Nashville was far from the first thing on her mind. With a Master’s Degree in Speech Pathology, Kelly finished her clinical fellowship year before she even considered the move to Nashville to make music. It was a chance to sing backup for her sister Kristen that got Kelly to Music City. “I had just finished my clinical fellowship year when my sister got a record deal with Sony, so I moved to Nashville to sing harmony with her,” Kelly recalled how her life in the industry started.
Since relocating to Nashville, Kelly has carved her own niche in the industry, cementing her place as an artist to remember with her most recent project. With heartfelt lyrics that run the gamut of human emotion, Kelly’s early influences are strong in the music she’s produced. “I love Patty Loveless. I love the range of voice, the style, the songs she sang. She and Reba McEntire, and of course The Judds. My grandpa was a musician and though he wasn’t playing when I was young, I think being in the environment down in Texas inspired me. I feel a big influence from dance halls and honky tonks and that style of country music. My family played a lot of Gary Stewart at home.” If it were 1975, or 1996, one could imagine the four female singers Kelly mentioned by name crooning every song on the EP; Kelly’s genuine and fine-tuned two-stepping style produces a nostalgia for honky tonk crooner’s past in all the best ways. Perhaps the most telling part of it all is how far the aforementioned women have made it; a potential Kelly herself possesses. It is not only simple, but exciting to imagine Kelly headlining shows to the tune of 40,000 patrons.
Kelly put it best herself when she explained that “music is the soundtrack to our lives. It doesn’t matter who we are, we’ve all experienced the same emotions. Whether we’re getting ready to go out or we’ve just had our hearts broken, we all have music and lyrics that see us through those moments. Music has always been the way I’ve shared my joys and my heartaches.” Kelly’s innate ability to highlight, mourn, and celebrate our human condition with both honest vulnerability and power is precisely what makes her stand out in the current terrain of daisy-dukes-and-beers-in-the-bed-of-a-pick-up-truck-on-a-hot-summer-night songs that we’ve currently got as our radio number ones. So many of Kelly’s music is torn from the pages of her own life, making that realistic connection to all of our most cherished memories easy to achieve in her songwriting.
“Bathroom Mirror”, co-written by Kelly and fellow songwriters Sarah Turner and Erin Enderlin, is a stunning example of Kelly’s intimate writing style. “We were all down in Arkansas and Sarah and I were getting ready to go, sharing the bathroom mirror. We started talking about how we shared the bathroom mirror with our sisters when we were growing up. There aren’t a lot of songs about sisters out there so we decided to write one ourselves. It was extra special because we went back and found a bunch of old home videos and had them edited into the acoustic video Erin and I made for the song. Whenever my sister gets mad at me now I’m going to remind her of the time I wrote a song for her.” As the song intended for listeners to do, Kelly and I took a long trip down memory lane, recounting some of our best moments with our sisters.
“One of my proudest payback moments with my sister,” Kelly laughed out loud as she described it, “was in high school. I had volleyball practice after school and then a National Honors Society event after that. I knew I’d have limited time at home to change for the event and I thought about what I was going to wear all day long so I wouldn’t waste any time. When I got home to change, the skirt I needed was gone. I thought there’s no way my sister has that skirt on! I called her at the spa where she was working and the folks who answered the phone told me she was in the middle of a massage and asked if it was an emergency. I really wanted to pay her back, so I told them that it was just so my sister would have to throw herself up and answer the phone so I could ask her if she had my skirt on. I keep thinking about that story when I talk about this song because that’s exactly what a relationship between sisters is. One minute we love each other, the next we hate each other. That song is meant to celebrate that and remember all those moments growing up together.”
That same sentimentality is reflected in Kelly’s EP, especially with the song “Daddy’s 8-track”. As a music lover himself, Kelly’s dad was a strong influence on her musical tastes. “This is the only song I wrote on this album and I included it because I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t. It took two writing sessions to finish it because I wanted so badly to tell the story behind the chorus. My dad used to have an old Chevy van with the 8-track in the back. He would play “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks, and I would sit in the backseat with my sister and be able to see his profile with his curly hair sticking out from underneath his trucker hat.” Kelly could have easily made this song a slower ballad, tempering the lyrics in such a way that listeners recall their sweetest childhood moments with a twinge of sadness. What Kelly did instead was juxtapose a story of times gone by with an upbeat melody; one almost has to listen more than once to realize the gravity of the lyrics like If I could close my eyes and hit rewind that’s just what I’d do / because these days the simple life is getting harder to hold on to. Kelly explained, “I love the honky tonk style but I don’t think they all have to be drinking songs. Those old Patty Loveless and Reba songs had the honky tonk groove, but they weren’t always talking about getting drunk. And I hadn’t thought of it yet, but it was important to me that the song had some southern rock influences because that’s what my dad loved. I think the story itself is what makes it a good country song. When you’re looking back at things you can’t stay sad for what you’ve lost or what’s changed. You can be for a moment, but then you’ve got to pick yourself up and keep going. To pick ourselves up and go is my and my sister’s nature. We appreciate the nostalgia, but we don’t want to be sad. It’s an appreciation of where I come from.” Though Kelly didn’t pen the rest of the songs on the EP, she chose carefully to ensure each one embraced the same spirit and emotional depths as the songs she has written.
Kelly’s EP is entirely fan funded; a trend that is quickly becoming the norm for independent artists in Nashville. With the project fully funded, the freedom to record whatever she wanted, and a cadre of eager fans awaiting her new music, Kelly had to double down to decide what to sing. “I put one song out a couple of years ago and I was getting ready to do one more and Brett Tyler, who produced my project, said “Kimberly, this will be a lot better if we can go in and record several at once”. Once he brought that up I decided I was going to do a campaign to fund a full EP. Then came the moment of panic when I realized I’d met my goal and these people are waiting on a project and I still don’t have all the songs I need. Because of that I went back to my entire catalog and took the stance in choosing each song that if this were my last record I ever made I’d want to sing that song. “Don’t Blame it on Me” became the cornerstone of the whole project. I tried to match everything back to that to make sure that sonically it all blended well.”
With the successful launch of Don’t Blame it on Me, we asked Kelly if she’s ready to jump back into the studio. Her response? “What am I supposed to be doing right now? Am I supposed to get married and have babies? I don’t have that yet and I want to make more music. I didn’t move here just to write or get married or hang out. I moved here to be Reba McEntire. I’m doing another project.”
Everyone at Lula 1892 is waiting with bated breath for the announcement of another EP. We got our first wish when Kelly and Erin Enderlin announced that they’d be doing another house concert tour this holiday season! For more information on the house concert series, check out Kelly’s website. Don’t Blame it on Me is available on iTunes and Spotify. To keep up with Kelly’s projects and live shows, follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.