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Ruston Kelly plays a solo acoustic session in The Current studio

Ruston Kelly – studio session at The Current (music + interview) The Current
  Play Now [15:03]

by Bill DeVille

May 21, 2023

Ruston Kelly’s third full-length album, The Weakness, released April 7, 2023. Now touring in support of the album, Kelly is savoring the time, to say the least. “The relief of being back onstage doing what I love to do the most is, it's kind of wordless to be able to express how happy it makes me,” he says.

Kelly’s tour included a stop at First Avenue in Minneapolis, and the morning before the show, Kelly visited The Current studio to perform solo acoustic versions of songs from The Weakness, and to chat with host Bill DeVille.

In addition to talking about the new album, Kelly also talks about some of the other projects he’s been working on, including producing his father’s long-awaited debut album, and the debut album of Tommy Prine, son of the late John Prine.

Watch and listen to the full session above, and read a transcript below.

A man sings and plays guitar in a recording studio
Ruston Kelly performing in The Current studio on Sunday, April 30, 2023.
Evan Clark | MPR

Interview Transcript

Bill DeVille: Hey, I'm Bill DeVille. And I'm here with Ruston Kelly. It's so nice to see you.

Ruston Kelly: Good to see you.

Bill DeVille: How's it going?

Ruston Kelly: It's going pretty good.

Bill DeVille: Good.

Ruston Kelly: You know, we're on tour, so.

Bill DeVille: That's my first question. You know, after this pandemic, is it nice to be back out on the road again? Does it feel good? 

Ruston Kelly: Yeah. I mean, it was really scary there for a minute. Like, you know, I think for everyone, it was scary as far as what any sort of future held. But in particular, if your job is where people congregate, you know, there was this fear of maybe not being able to do it again, you know? And so the relief of being back onstage doing what I love to do the most is, it's kind of wordless to be able to express how happy it makes me.

Bill DeVille: Yeah. So let's talk about the album, The Weakness, was this made it during the pandemic, then?

Ruston Kelly: Off and on. I mean, I, there was also the uncertainty of like, what's the next, you know, move if I can't, I was — we just released my second album, Shape & Destroy, and weren't really able to promote it, you know, so it was like, well, we can turn our attention towards working on a third project or whatever; everything was kind of up in the air. So I started writing what became for this record during the pandemic, but it was really more of an exercise to keep myself sane.

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Ruston Kelly: You know? Which, like it gave me that, the feeling of how I used to be when I'd write, you know? Before I started making records, I just write because I personally had to express myself some way. Get it out.

Bill DeVille: So the new album, you bought this old Victorian house in a place called Portland, Tennessee. Is that just outside of Nashville then?

Ruston Kelly: Yes, it's about 30 miles. About 30 miles too far for really anyone to come over for dinner, which is nice sometimes. But it was purposely, like I did it on purpose, so that I would... I don't know, I, I've wanted to catch this maybe vortex in my life; you know, the pandemic kind of like teed it up in that I could be somewhat of a figurative man in the woods for a moment, to really get to relearn who I am and what I'm about, and like, what I what I stand on and for, and what I want to do with my life, you know?

Bill DeVille: The album is called The Weakness, and the title track to me, I hear it and it seems like kind of a hopeful song. It kind of says, "Keep your head up. It's hard out there." Is there some truth to that?

Ruston Kelly: I like that, that's pretty good, actually.

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Ruston Kelly: Yeah. "Keep your head up. It's hard out there." I think that's a sentiment that every single person should be reminded of. Maybe constantly. It is tough out there sometimes. We, you know, we can deepen our celebrations of the joyous times and make those stretch further past the times that we suffer. But when, you know, we all kind of fall to the human condition of either feeling less than or falling short or stumbling, or whatever it is. I think having some sort of mantra is the reminder and could be that difference between you staying down and getting up. And that's what that song was is this kind of like cyclical, repetitive Nirvana-esque, you know, kind of almost annoyingly said too many times, "We don't give into the weakness," personally for myself.

A man, seen through a window, looks upward in the rain
Ruston Kelly's third album, 'The Weakness,' released April 7, 2023.
Rounder Records

Bill DeVille: Another song that really caught my ear was "Mending Song." And you mention, you hear the words of your father, "Have faith, there's no storm that doesn't pass." Is that something your father really said?

Ruston Kelly: Yeah, he's got these — he's from Alabama. He's got these like truth bombs, you know what I mean? He's also said, you know, "You can't steer a boat by looking back at the wake." That's so good. You know what I mean? He's like, these really like, these idioms that put you in this moment. It's like, so clear and almost storybook that you can't help but, I don't know, have that wisdom be imparted. And he said it at such a time that I needed to hear it. You know, when you feel like you might not make it through something. Like, everyone experiences that. You feel like, OK, like, it's wall after wall after wall after wall, and there's never a breakthrough that comes clean. And then you hear something like that, and it just hits you right at the time that you need it. And it gave me so much hope, so I had to put it in the song.

Bill DeVille: Yeah, you've done a lot with your father over the years. I mean, I remember seeing you in Nashville at Americana Fest, and your dad was playing the pedal steel with you.

A band performing onstage in Nashville
Ruston Kelly, far left, and his father Tim "TK" Kelly (right, on pedal steel) performing at the Ryman Auditorium on November 7, 2021, in Nashville.
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Ruston Kelly: Oh yeah, man! Yeah, he's a... that guy. He's a great guy. He's the best man, you know, that I know. And it at first, we didn't necessarily like super, we weren't super close, when in my like, 20s. I mean, we were always very close. I'm close to my family. But I kind of pushed some of my family away when I was doing a lot of use of substances; overuse is a better way to put it. And it's so amazing that like through music and as like, I got better with myself, and took on music as a serious career, him being a part of that in the very beginning has strengthened and deepened our relationship more than I think anything else could.

Bill DeVille: Yeah. You know, one thing you rarely see, you know, you hear of fathers producing sons' record, but rarely do you hear of a son producing his father's record. What in the world was that experience like?

Ruston Kelly: That is pretty nuts.

Bill DeVille: Yeah. Oh, really?

Ruston Kelly: That's so cool. That experience was one of the most important emotional experiences of my life. Like my dad, you know, he was offered record contracts, and publishing and management, all this stuff back in the day, in like 1971. And he's playing bars and stuff. And he actually won Bob Hope's national songwriting competition.  Yeah. And so he was offered this like package deal. And he turned it all down, um, so that, you know, I guess coming from Depression-era parents, you know, they had, there wasn't really much convincing, you know, that this could be like a livelihood to provide for a family.

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Ruston Kelly: So for him to like, re-enter the scene with me, and then when we're on the road, you know, he'd be playing guitar in the back of the bus, and he'd be playing some of these songs that like I'd heard my entire life. Like, "You should just record these."

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Ruston Kelly: So we did and, I mean, one of the songs on there, he wrote when he was 18. You know, so it's 48 years in the making, you know, to have that come out and come out for real for everyone else to hear is insane. So like, I don't think there's anything accolade or award that would beat the feeling of helping him accomplish that. [Note: Tim “TK” Kelly’s album, Ride Through The Rain, released November 5, 2021.]

Bill DeVille: Did you crack the whip in the studio saying, "You gotta try this!"

Ruston Kelly: Yes, I did! I mean, because you know, it's great, we have this like relationship where he listens to my advice on, you know, when it comes to things with like songwriting. And you know, I listen to his advice about everything else, you know? And yeah, I was in there just like, "Nope! There's a much better take than that." Like, "That one, that one, maybe. Maybe that one, but I need you to get back in there and, you know, lay another one down."

Bill DeVille: Yeah. 

Ruston Kelly: He's like, "What the hell?!" It was fun.

A man sings and plays guitar onstage
Ruston Kelly's father, Tim "TK" Kelly, performing at the Ryman Auditorium on November 7, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Bill DeVille: Yeah, so when you were sound checking a while ago, I heard you play a little bit of "All the Best" by John Prine.

Ruston Kelly: Oh yeah. That's a good one.

Bill DeVille: That's a really good one. What does John Prine mean to you?

Ruston Kelly: John Prine, you know, his songwriting, you know, it's one of those eternal, you know voices that filters to you. If you're, you know, of the craft and care about songwriting, like, you'll hear John Prine. And he definitely in the beginning inspired, you know, this sense of like being able to turn a phrase that was funny but also deeply moving at the same time. And you know, I didn't know, after hearing that song for the first time when I was young and loving it, you know, that fate would bring me and his son together. Tommy Prine, his record I just produced.

Bill DeVille: Oh, really?

Ruston Kelly: Yeah. Tommy Prine. He just he just signed with Thirty Tigers and Wasserman, and he's like, he just announced the tour. He's actually opening the Nashville show for me at Ascend in June. So we, me and Gena Johnson, who is a producer in town, she also engineered a record of mine, we co-produced Tommy's debut LP [This Far South], it's coming out in June.

Bill DeVille: That's exciting.

Ruston Kelly: It's nuts. Yeah, it's really nuts, like, how Nashville can work like that.

Bill DeVille: Do you think it's hard to be, you know, the son of John Prine? And everybody's gonna look at you, like, you know, you're supposed to be this, you know, you're supposed to inherit this from your father and...

Ruston Kelly: Yeah, I mean, I think it depends on what your mentality is with it and why you do it. You know, everyone has their own mantle. And that question will be asked, but Tommy is so different, but also pulling from like, it's in his blood, you know? And so I think whenever someone hears Tommy they hear something very uniquely special. And, and it's an it's an incredible anecdote in his story that, you know, his father was a master songwriter as well.

A man in a baseball cap smiles for a photo
Tommy Prine is a Nashville-born singer-songwriter, and the son of the late songwriting legend, John Prine.
courtesy IVPR

Bill DeVille: Yeah. Speaking of, you know, legendary artists, John, or, excuse me, I mentioned Willie Nelson is 90 this weekend.

Ruston Kelly: I heard that.

Bill DeVille: Yeah. Isn't that crazy, he's still out there performing. He's performing today at the Hollywood Bowl and...

Ruston Kelly: My boy's selling out the Hollywood Bowl at 90 years old! That's pretty sick! I love that.

Bill DeVille: Are you a big Willie guy?

Ruston Kelly: Yeah, I mean, you know, he's just like a figure. He was always there, you know? And I think I speak for everyone when I say we're glad to always have him there.

Bill DeVille: Yeah, yeah. You have an EP called Dirt Emo.

Ruston Kelly: Yeah.

Bill DeVille: Yeah. What is "dirt emo" to you?

Ruston Kelly: I mean, look, here's the truth: Is like that was a tweet that I made, and it kind of caught on, because dirty emo I was just, like, you know, I mean I made like a, to me I made a folk-rock record with Dying Star and Shape & Destroy. Like, I don't know really what country music is. Like, I don't really know what that, how to record that. I just kind of know how to, you know, it felt more like Jackson Browne and John Prine, you know meets a little bit of like Dashboard Confessional than country.

Bill DeVille: Yeah. 

Ruston Kelly: And so my tweet was like, in defense of me not being a specific, like stereotype, you know, classic, like first-album-new-artist statement: "I'm not this, you can't label me!" So I was like, "I'm dirt emo." It was just kind of off the dome. To me, that's um, I don't know, it's just like alternative music but, like, you know, there's might be some steel guitar occasionally in there. 

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Ruston Kelly: You know? Like folk, folk-based, but folk is like ... I don't know, everybody sings folk music.

Bill DeVille: Did you grow up on this emo music?

Ruston Kelly: I did, yeah. Yeah. Did you read the book Sellout:The Major Label Feeding Frenzy that Swept Punk, Emo and Hardcore?

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Ruston Kelly: Yeah, so like those, I would say my melodies, like my like chorus melodies, they're all so sing-songy, and that is something that like traditional folk music and pop punk or emo have in common, these very nursery rhyme, you know, phrased and cadenced melodies. They're just like instantly catchy, and so I'm kind of always shooting for that I want, if I'm singing something, I want you to be able to sing it, too. No, I didn't!

Bill DeVille: You should read it. I just finished it up. I got it for Christmas from somebody younger than me, and it was a fantastic read.

Ruston Kelly: That sounds like it'd be fantastic.

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Ruston Kelly: Oh yeah, because that stuff, like, the moment that like, you know, the big wigs found out with the kids like, you know, commercialization stepped in and kind of ruined the scene a bit.

Bill DeVille: Sure did, but there's been somewhat of a comeback.

Ruston Kelly: There has. Yeah. It's pretty crazy; like, Dashboard Confessional is playing bigger rooms and they ever have now, and you know, what's funny is that on my first record, the artists that reached out to me first — without me, this is before saying anything about emo or anything like that, just when the record came out — the first artists that reached out to me were artists from that scene.

Bill DeVille: Really? Like Chris Carrabba?

Ruston Kelly: Yeah, Chris reached out. Adam Lazzara from Taking Back Sunday. All Time Low. And you know, homies with the All Time Low guys, still; we talk about playing shows together all the time, just haven't linked our schedules up. But yeah, and Chris has become a good friend of mine. So it's kind of, it naturally did that, you know what I mean? Without intention, which is cool.

A man holding a guitar smiles onstage between songs
Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional performing onstage during Audacy Beach Festival at Fort Lauderdale Beach on December 4, 2022, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Jason Koerner/Getty Images

Bill DeVille: Yeah. What's your thoughts, and this was kind of a buzz — well, two letters of the moment — AI, artificial intelligence.

Ruston Kelly: What's my thought on artificial intelligence?

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Ruston Kelly: I mean, I think I want it to be something to be scared of, because it's kind of fun. You know? But I watched a documentary recently on Netflix about like, what, like, the fear of AI is a little bit like exaggerated through Hollywood, and that, like, artificial intelligence is somewhat of a misnomer. Because like, we're like, it can't do anything that it's not coded to do.

Bill DeVille: Right.

Ruston Kelly: So, I mean, unless someone codes a bra robot to destroy the world, which, that would be scary. I mean, I think artificial intelligence in music is a threat.

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Ruston Kelly: I think it's a threat to culture. For sure. Like sure, if you want to make like a kids bop something and, you know, put a, you know, pop song on the radio that's just like for someone to tap their foot like, yeah, we have, we've had player pianos.

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Ruston Kelly: But as far as that being somewhat of becoming a staple in the studio, I mean, I just feel like that would destroy something.

Bill DeVille: You wonder what would pop up if you wrote in, "Make a song that sounds like Ruston Kelly."

Ruston Kelly: Yo, that would be so nuts. And it, like, writes a better song than me? I would be so... I don't know. I guess I would be like, you know, it'd be like Terminator. I'd go on the side of the humans. You know, start gearing up.

Bill DeVille: Right. Right. So nice chatting with you.

Ruston Kelly: Nice chatting with you, too, man.

Bill DeVille: It's Ruston Kelly, thanks for dropping by. It's been a pleasure to have you here.

Ruston Kelly: Yeah, thanks for talking with me.

Bill DeVille: My pleasure.

Two men have a conversation in a recording studio
Host Bill DeVille (right) interviews Ruston Kelly in The Current studio on Sunday, April 30, 2023.
Evan Clark | MPR

Video segments

00:00:00 The Weakness
00:03:12 St. Jupiter
00:05:32 Mending Song
00:09:12 Interview with host Bill DeVille

All songs from Ruston Kelly’s 2023 album, The Weakness, available on Rounder Records.


Guest – Ruston Kelly
Host – Bill DeVille
Producer – Derrick Stevens
Video Director – Evan Clark
Camera Operators – Guillermo Bonilla, Evan Clark
Audio – Derek Ramirez
Graphics – Natalia Toledo
Digital Producer – Luke Taylor

Ruston Kelly - official site

Tim Kelly - official site

Tommy Prine - official site