Ruston Kelly writes and performs the kinds of songs that inspire novels and movies.
You could call him a bastard disciple of Kurt Cobain and Townes Van Zandt, and he’d be totally cool with that. He’s just as comfortable wearing a cowboy hat as he is in a Slayer t-shirt. His story so far twists and turns through heartbreak and triumph, an overdose and rehab, empty dive bars and packed venues, living everywhere from South Carolina to Brussels, and as he puts it, “finally getting my shit together and proposing to the love of my life.”
It’s this unbelievable experience that informs Ruston’s singular style—a gravelly patchwork of folk lyricism, grunge attitude, country heart, Americana spirit, and rock energy. Not only has he penned songs for Tim McGraw (“Nashville Without You”), Josh Abbott Band (“Front Row Seat”), and more, but his independent solo debut EP Halloween earned acclaim from KCRW, Consequence of Sound, RELIX, Apple Music, and more. He logged countless miles on the road sharing the stage with the likes of The Lumineers and Robert Earl Keen in addition to performing at Bonnaroo and Wakarusa.
It’s no coincidence that he took to music as an infant.
“The first sound I remember hearing was a steel guitar,” he says. “My dad was in some East Texas folk bands back in the day, and he would play steel guitar every night before I went to bed. When he wanted to sneak cigarettes, he’d take me on midnight drives around the neighborhood and play Jackson Browne records. I was fascinated. It seemed like a magical thing to recreate a song you’d heard before.”
As the family shuffled around from Alabama, Cincinnati, and Texas, Ruston learned guitar at 13-years-old. While in Brussels, he immersed himself in classic country and roots.
“Subconsciously, I think I wanted to reconnect with the homeland,” he admits. “It started with The Carter Family, then Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Leadbelly, and Johnny Cash. All of that influences what I do. I was raised with good old Southern kindness, but I was also taught to keep an open mind about things. There are so many different types of cultures and people out there. That’s definitely a theme for me.”
Ruston picked up and left Belgium at 17, relocating to Nashville to live with his older sister. He went on to form the popular jam band Elmwood and tour from 2008 until 2011. By 2013, he had signed his first publishing deal with BMG in Nashville and was landing high-profile placements.
However, his life really spun out of control.
“Before I was offered the deal, I relapsed into an old drug habit that I had been struggling with for a few years,” he sighs. “I ended up going to rehab. I couldn’t quite get my personal rhythm right. Then, I overdosed in January 2016. That was the last wakeup call I needed.”
Finally getting clean, Ruston released Halloween that June. Produced by Mike Mogis [Bright Eyes, First Aid Kit, Jenny Lewis] and tracked in just nine days, it formally introduced listeners to his voice. “Poison” racked up over 516K Spotify streams, while “Black Magic” soundtracked the Season Finale of the CBS series Scorpion. With its lilting steel guitar, rough delivery, and enchanting refrain, the track showcases his honesty with the cry, “Love is hell.”
“I think everybody’s been there,” he continues. “You go through one too many bad relationships and get that feeling like, ‘Love shouldn’t be this fucking hard and difficult.’ It’s as if someone cast a spell on you. They’re all really just stepping stones for you to be able to see what you really need as far as love is concerned.”
Signing to Washington Square Music / Razor & Tie and gearing up to record his full-length debut in 2017, Ruston holds nothing back.
“When people hear my songs, I want them to be affected in the way music affected me before I started doing it for a living,” he concludes. “I want them to think, ‘Damn, that made me feel something important I didn’t know I needed to feel.’ I fucking love playing music; it brings me so much joy. If I’m still doing this years from now, that’s more luck than I deserve.”