Already a favorite in adult alternative/singer-songwriter circles, Josh Kelley has signed a record deal with a Nashville major label for his first country album, and he says he expects to spend the rest of his career in country music. He’s already keeping company with Miranda Lambert as the opening act on this year’s CMT on Tour , which also features Eric Church.
CMT on Tour continues this week during a swing through Texas with stops Thursday (Nov. 4) in Nacogdoches, Friday in College Station and Saturday in Beaumont.
“I’m a huge fan of Miranda Lambert,” Kelley says. “She’s phenomenal. You can tell she’s the real deal. She’ll be around forever. A lot of times what separates somebody, you can’t really put a finger on. But it’s there. It’s an intangible. And she’s got that.”
However, Kelley won’t be the first country star in his family. His younger brother, Charles Kelley, holds that distinction as a member of Lady Antebellum. However, they occasionally write songs together, with credits like Kelley’s first country single, “Georgia Clay.” The budding solo country artist dropped by CMT recently to talk about fine-tuning his live show, founding a band with Charles and focusing on a curious country audience.
CMT: How important was your live show to developing your songwriting?
Kelley: You know what it does? The better you get live and the more you start feeding off the crowd and the more the crowd really starts to like you, you start to tailor a lot of your songs toward performing, too. Even “Georgia Clay” and songs like “Rain and Whiskey” off this new album, I would’ve never written songs like that if it weren’t for learning how to tour and realizing that people love four-on-the-floor. You know, people love up-tempo songs. They love songs that they can sing along to — that after the first chorus, they already know they can sing the second and third chorus with you. So that’s a pretty big part of touring. Yeah, for sure.
But you were playing shows before your indie albums and the major label albums.
Yeah, when I first got signed, I was pretty good at playing solo and keeping a crowd entertained. But when “Amazing” started doing really well [on the pop chart], I was awful — awfully green — and awful with a full band. I just had not been doing it, and it takes a long time to really develop those kinds of skills. And for basically your new family to really know what you’re going to do before you do it. That took a while. I’m a much better performer now than I was in ’03/’04.
How old were you when you were a part of Inside Blue, your band with Charles?
We were, like, 14 and 15. I think when I turned 16, I was finally the first one that could drive in the band. We recorded this five-song EP, and the next thing you know, [a] manager wanted to sign us to Atlantic Records. We were all excited, but my older brother and my dad were like, “Nah, you shouldn’t be doing this.” They didn’t want to sign the papers because it seemed just a little shady. To tell you the truth, now that I’ve learned what I’ve learned, it was shady. (laughs) Big time! But it gave us a little confidence to realize that a life in the entertainment business is achievable for small-town people.
What did your music sound like in that band?
Let’s see. (starts playing guitar) Oh, my god. Charles is going to kill me if I tell you this. I’ll just play you the first part of it. Look, we were 14 and 15 years old, writing songs called “Ten Years in a Bottle.” It was like (sings), “Living is my weakness/And dying is my fear/I’ve tried all my life/Just to keep my mind clear/The only thing that matters/Is my love and my life/I’ve spent 10 years in a bottle/Now … my mouth’s dry.” Yeah. (laughs) “Ten years in a bottle, and now my mouth is dry.” I guess we started drinking when we were four. It was ridiculous but it was fun. … Charles was singing lead then and I was singing harmonies. I was a guitar geek then. All I cared about was what was new with electric guitar.
At what point did you get hooked on live performance?
I finally started really connecting with a live band in 2005. That’s about the time. From there on out, it’s been like crack. And I’ve never had crack, but I can imagine that what’s going on now is probably like that.
When a country audience comes to see you, what do you hope they take away from your set?
It’s interesting because it’s like a 20-25 minute set. There’s a lot that has to happen. Now either you ask, “Do I give them the music and the personality?” or “Do I just give them the music?” What do you focus on? What I really want to happen here is that, obviously, the music is the most important thing. But if people are going to invest in an artist, they have to know that the artist is a good person. So I think I’m probably going to keep my little stories to a minimum, but I’ll just say quick snippets of things. I’ll let people know what the songs are about and let them know how much I appreciate the opportunity to play for them, and then hit them with the goods.