Kristen Kelly's first country hit, "Ex-Old Man," seems to be perfect for the format: A husband runs off with the wife's best friend. Yet it was a love-gone-wrong storyline that Kelly never expected to put to music.
"'Ex-Old Man' is a song that I had no intentions of writing," she says. "Personally, it was old news for me. I was writing with Paul Overstreet, and we were working on another song -- I don't even remember which song. And in passing, I mentioned that I had an ex-husband and an ex-best girlfriend and he said, 'Wait a minute! Tell me more about that.' So in telling him what happened, we ended up writing the song, it became the lead-off single ... and here I am."
The peppy track has climbed into the Top 30 at country radio, the light-hearted video is in rotation on CMT and she's just released a self-titled, four-song digital EP. She's working with a Music Row dream team, too. In addition to writing with Paul Overstreet, she's signed to Arista Nashville, produced by Tony Brown, published by Sony/ATV and managed by industry veteran John Grady.
"If you had asked me 10 years ago if I thought I'd be here talking about all of this, in this position, I probably would have laughed," says Kelly, whose musical influences also stretch toward the blues and classic rock. "This is my life -- and it's surreal."
Although she grew up in a rural area near Waco, Texas, Kelly moved to Nashville in January. She dropped by CMT recently to chat about "Ex-Old Man," her songwriting process and her secret stereo stashed on the school bus.
CMT.com: You could've taken a bitter approach to "Ex-Old Man," but it sounds like you have fun singing it. Were you going for fun, rather than a bitter delivery, on that song?
Kelly: Yeah! Life happens, and I believe when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, add vodka and have a good time.
Did the melody come quickly to that song?
I think for the most part, yeah. It's one of those songs we wrote rather quickly. You know, it's three chords and the truth.
What was going through your mind the first time you wrote with Paul Overstreet?
I had a song idea that I had held onto for a couple of years. It was about seeing my ex-husband for the first time and feeling nothing -- and how great that felt. We're both from the same small town, so every time I would run into him after we got divorced, a little part of me would fall apart all over again. So to finally reach a point where I could see him and not fall apart was a really powerful moment for me. I had the lines: "There stands a man I used to love/His hands, my skin, they used to touch." ...
So as I was telling [Overstreet], the experience of seeing my ex-husband and feeling nothing, I'm walking around the room talking, and he's got a Sharpie and a piece of paper. As the words were coming out of my mouth, he was writing the same thing about how feeling nothing never felt so good. We just looked at each other and knew it was one of those special moments where we tapped into an emotion and an idea that would work.
You've written with him a lot. Is that how your process is? You walk around while he writes it down?
(laughs) I'm maybe a little bit of an antsy person. I definitely don't sit still for very long. There have been songs written walking around the room or sitting by the pool, having a drink. Songwriting ideas, lyrics and melodies come to me at random times. You don't always sit down and finish a song in one sitting. You can work on something for days, weeks, months or years.
How many songs do you have in your arsenal now?
Oh, I don't know. At least a hundred or more.
So this isn't something that's new for you. You've been writing for a long time.
Yeah, I started writing poetry in middle school, and I guess it was within the last 10 years that I started taking some of that poetry and putting it to music and writing songs. I actually co-wrote a song in May 2004. I guess that was probably the first song that I have co-written.
What was it about country music from the '80s and '90s that drew you in? I can hear that influence in your music.
Thanks! Well, my grandfather was a country singer-songwriter so I was influenced by him. But I grew up listening to Reba, the Judds, George Strait, Travis Tritt, Randy Travis, Clint Black and even Paul Overstreet. My sister and I would carry this little tape player/radio down our driveway every morning. And on the bus ride to school every day, we would sing Randy Travis or George Strait or Clint Black or the Judds or Reba. Then we'd leave the little radio under the bus seat. And when we'd get back on the bus at the end of the school day for the ride home, we'd be singing again. So I've just grown up in love with country music.
Do you feel like you're a people person? You almost have to be to go into this career.
I think so, yeah. I love traveling, too. I love meeting new people and traveling. I very rarely unpack my suitcase. I love being on the go.