Some musicians are made for the role of Nashville songwriter for hire, but people like Irene Kelley, a silky-voiced Pennsylvania native cum Nashville transplant who could seemingly care less about the vapid boundaries of bubblegum pop-country, are destined to break out on their own. Not that she wasn’t good as a ghostwriter. She penned songs in the early days that were recorded by Loretta Lynn, Ricky Scaggs and, when she released her debut record, Simple Path, in 1999, the song “A Little Bluer Than That” was covered by Alan Jackson on his platinum album Drive. But, on her first album in more than a decade, Pennsylvania Coal, the coal miner’s granddaughter proves she’s at her best when she pieces together her own story.
The most interesting thing about Kelley’s songwriting on this album is her lack of ego. Although the material mostly revolves around her life and family history, every song has a co-writer. She’s spent more than two decades proving her ability, meaning she probably doesn’t need help. But, just as the content is about friends and family, so was the process. While the majority of the ideas came from her, she grabbed a little help from respected songwriters and also from her daughters, Justnya and Sara, who helped to shape several tunes and added gorgeous harmonies throughout the album.
“Maybe I’m a coat you wore, through some winter long ago / Wore so close, but left behind / When the spring replaced the snow,” Kelley sings with indifference during the second verse of Pennsylvania Coal‘s opening track “You Don’t Run Across My Mind”, about the people you could never forget, but choose to keep their memory lying dormant. And, right away, with that song, she shows the ace up her sleeve: when she takes a simple idea, especially a sharp, poetic phrase, and turns it into something easily relatable, yet ambiguous enough to evoke a different memory upon each listen, she seems unstoppable. This format serves her well with the melancholy memories on “Feels Like Home”, the hard-hitting What-Ifs on “Things We Never Did” and addressing open wounds on “Better with Time”, which Trisha Yearwood added some piercing harmonies to.
“Crabtree, Pennsylvania, a sleepy little town / Everything that kept her going, was lying underground / My grandpa worked the mine, then he worked the farm / Eight hours in the dark, six hours in the sun,” Kelley croons with a sense of unmistakable pride on the title track, which is based on her grandparents — first-generation Polish immigrants who moved to America when they were 15 and 17. But, what makes the song interesting, is it that although it carries a heavy amount of admiration, it really focuses on the gritty struggles facing families in the that era, with lines like, “Grandma made and sold corn liquor, to buy the family shoes / For that little so-called luxury / That’s what she had to do / First generation, American and proud / She wouldn’t talk about it, but I’m here to tell it now.”
Pennsylvania Coal is richly authentic. It’s incredibly personal stuff, but these songs often twist or turn into something else. The stories about her grandparent also embody the collective strugglers of the working class, not only two generations ago, but right now. The heartbreak, the happiness, the vulnerability — it all, one way or another, hits home for everyone.