Josh Kelley

Comes Into Focus

Josh Kelley. Photo by Randee St. Nicholas

Josh Kelley. Photo by Randee St. Nicholas

Because of Josh Kelley’s burgeoning career as a country music star and his marriage to movie star Katherine Heigl, I mistakenly typecast him, expecting his call to be coming from either Nashville or Los Angeles. “I’m actually in Pittsburgh right now,” he says in a slow, gravelly drawl. “My wife’s making a movie here and I’m in between radio touring. They gave me four days off to hang out with my wife and kid.”

As he says this, one can’t help painting a mental picture of Kelley—messy black hair and scruffy stubble in place—sprawled out in a plush trailer on the movie set. He sounds as if he’s both sighing in relief and smiling in contentment at the thought of stealing a moment with his wife. Having turned 30 this year, he relishes being the husband to Heigl and, now, the father to their newly adopted baby girl Naleigh. He sounds relaxed, confident in both the artist and the man he’s become.

That man, the Josh Kelley in Pittsburgh, is a far cry from the Josh Kelley portrayed alongside the rolling guitar licks in “Georgia Clay”—the nostalgic lead single off his as-yet-untitled country music foray. Co-written with his younger brother Charles (of country supergroup Lady Antebellum) and producer Clint Lagerberg, the lyrics depict the adventures of a 17-year-old Kelley back home in Augusta. In the song, music and family take a backseat in the face of what Kelley would most likely characterize now as the simple desires of a naïve, young man:

Only one of my friends with a fake I.D.
It made me the hometown celebrity
Used to put her in park in a vacant lot
And I still can’t believe we never got caught

When life was nothing more th­­-an living for the night
Just trying to steal a kiss on a tailgate of that ride
Good old days don’t wash away
Just like that Georgia Clay

Unbeknownst to this fearless teenager “running on dumb luck,” in a couple of short years he would be at the cusp of an unimaginable, sometimes schizophrenic coming-of-age tale that, when told, sounds as if it could be played out on—well—a movie set.

Term used in filmmaking to suggest where the story begins

Josh Kelley has lived “everywhere,” most recently settling with his family in Utah. But when he thinks of “home,” his mind pans the streets of Augusta, settling on the house he grew up in, which he describes as “basically the high school fraternity house.” “My mom’s not going to like hearing that,” he says, laughing, “but she was fine with all our friends staying over and hanging out and having a good time because I think she knew how important it was to development. You’ve got to have good friends around.”

His closest friend, though, was already in the house: his younger brother Charles. Kelley jokes that his parents did everything in “twos.” First they had his older sister, followed by his older brother. Eight years later came Josh, followed 18 months later by Charles. Thinking his parents had Charles to provide him a “buddy,” the two became inseparable, from playing in the Georgia clay to making early music together.

More often than not, one could find them jamming in their upstairs bedroom with Josh hashing out Led Zeppelin tunes on his classical guitar. For most parents, such noise would be intolerable and there would undoubtedly be yelling back on forth for some peace and quiet. But the Kelleys’ parents nurtured their blossoming musical talents. Mom even sat in as a band member on occasion. She played drums in the marching band and would often teach them paradiddles (a common drum pattern) in addition to providing the necessary beats to their own tunes. Such sanctioned openness to music proved crucial because it gave the boys permission to also experience the remarkable musical landscape that lay outside their home. Augusta, after all, is the birthplace of James Brown and it added a healthy dose of funk and soul alongside the prerequisite presence of southern rock and country.

“All those things together—I don’t know, there’s a lot of gravel in it,” he says of the various genres he encountered. “I call it the backbeat—I learned a lot about the backbeat in soul music. And then I learned a lot about delivering music with a little gravel in your voice because of country. And I think having that soul and country together is really sort of what created my sound.”

Music so saturated his daily life both inside and outside the home that he and his brother Charles almost stumbled into musical careers that, if successful, would look very different from where they’ve landed today. “We had a band called Inside Blue,” he recalls. “I remember that James Brown’s manager Larry Friday wanted to manage us and sign us to Atlantic Records. I remember our dad saying that he thought we were too young and that he wanted us to experience life first, which I’m really, really glad that we did do that because who knows what we would’ve become.”

Used appropriately, these can be used to convey shifts in character development and emotion

Most people know Kelley for his dreamy pop singles “Amazing” and “Only You” —both part of the early 2000’s wave of soft pop/rock made hip by John Mayer. In the videos, Kelley looks a bit hipster in Converse All-Stars and preppy sweaters. But that’s not what he intended to become. No, when he first tried to make a serious career out of his music, he saw himself wearing a rodeo belt buckle and singing with a lot more twang. He wanted to be a country star. “I’ve been listening to country music forever,” he gushes. “When I was 21, I went to Nashville to try and get a deal—to try and get a record deal. I went and I had a showcase. There were like four different labels there. They ended up turning me down—they just didn’t think I was ready yet. And to tell you the truth, I wasn’t.”

But youth has a way of dismissing such insights in favor of the thrill of the hunt for any kind of success, even if it’s not what was initially envisioned. Undaunted at the initial setback, Kelley simply tweaked his presentation to encompass a broader appeal. He forged ahead with a self-admittedly I-can-do-anything fearlessness which led him to send out random messages through a music sharing site called Napster. The subject line? A not so humble, “If you like James Taylor, try Josh Kelley.” After hundreds of messages, one landed in the inbox of Eric Clinger, an A&R rep for Hollywood Records who signed Kelley a year later. Looking back on that time, Kelley laughs, “I wasn’t even ready when I got [that], but I told them I was!” Later he adds, “Oh, man, I was so green. I had no idea what I was doing. And I probably was a little cocky.”

Josh Kelley. Photo by Randee St. Nicholas

Josh Kelley. Photo by Randee St. Nicholas

His early Hollywood singles proved hits, though. They kicked off a roller-coaster seven-year career of steadily making music ranging from more slightly over-produced pop for the label to, later, an inconsistent mix of soul and country-tinged pop as an independent artist with his own record label. “I had two albums with my first label that was a major label and those were fun, you know, and that was part of the learning period,” he confesses. “Then, that deal was over. I started my own record label and took all the money I [had] made and put it right back in my career. I remember saying my prayers 14 times a day, saying, ‘Help me stay afloat,’ because in the music business you’ve got to keep putting stuff out. You have to stay out—you’ve got to put material out or people will just move on. So, I satiated my audiences’ needs, I feel like, and gave them a lot of material.”

Then, he pauses and offers a surprising critique only a man with some experience under his belt can offer. “One thing I really didn’t give [fans] is a cohesive artist, though. I was many, many, different styles because I have fun. When I’m the producer and there’s nobody wrangling me in, it’s going to be like that. That’s kind of basically what that was. It’s just, really, me learning.”

When the image seems to close in on a person or object making the person or object appear larger on screen

From the time of being a teenager to his pop career in his twenties, Kelley continually battled the learning curve and the critique of not being ready, but not anymore. “I’m at a point where I have found me,” he declares. “And I’ve found what I want to represent and stand for.” For Kelley this newfound focus was caused by two things—first, developing a family and, then, developing a song. “Really, it took me becoming a family man to really, really get it,” he says “I can honestly tell you that my sound, my music will be consistent, pretty dadgum consistent from here on out.”

One would think creating a family amongst two careers in the limelight would be stressful, a burden almost to the artistry of making music. But Kelley has pinpointed the reason for the seemingly opposite focusing effect it’s had on his career. “Becoming selfless,” he says without hesitation. “Losing that self-absorbed, I-can-do-anything kind of feeling. It’s interesting when you start living for somebody else. Everybody’s different, wherever they sort of find their sweet spot. I found it in family.”

As this “sweet spot” took shape, his songs naturally began to fall in line, with little resistance as the final piece to his life’s puzzle. Two years ago, he wrote the heartbreaking, lyrically driven ballad “Gone Like That,” which he hoped would be recorded by Keith Urban. But after cutting the demo, he sent it to his publisher, as well as to Charles, both of whom couldn’t believe the smoldering twang was actually Kelley.

His publisher wanted more, so Kelley cut an EP of music he’s “been trying to do for years,” which finally landed him what he’d initially set his sights on all those years ago: a deal with a major country label, Universal Nashville. Finally, his life was “ready” to catch up with this talent. “There is more to feel for sure,” he offers. “I can relate to the lyrics more. Used to, I was writing about things that I hoped would happen one day. And now I’m writing about things that are happening—so that’s a big difference, I would say.”

“I’ve been very lucky that my career’s been very gradual. So, basically, I’ve kind of gotten what I wanted; it just took a little longer. Country music’s where my heart is. It’s where you find the best lyrics in music—that’s what I believe. And where you find the best stories. And I’m a storyteller, so there’s just no better genre for me to be in than country. This is where I’ll live out the rest of my career. I’ll be doing this until I’m 85 or I can’t sing anymore.”

But as “Georgia Clay” attests, one’s youth—where fearlessness and experimentation are so sweetly ever-present before the sobering truth of the mistakes and success that come with growing up—can be intoxicating. Does the self-described “adult” Kelley—now the country star and family man—ever yearn for that simpler time of his late teens and early twenties?

“To tell you the truth, I definitely wouldn’t want to go back to that time period where…I mean there were so many rules—curfews and things,” he laughs. Then, with an almost tangible pride, he adds, “I absolutely love where I’m at now. I wouldn’t trade now for the world.”

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