There’s been a lot of attention on bluegrass music lately, but it doesn’t come without justification. Artists in the genre are redeveloping some of the aesthetical parameters that have arguably prevented its core sound from becoming exposed to a much larger audience in the 21st century, and among those who have caught my interest lately is Irene Kelley, an upstanding songwriter and singer whose new record Benny’s TV Repair is a blue-collar crossover if there ever was one. Benny’s TV Repair is a country album with a bluegrass soul and traces of a distant Americana influence, and astoundingly enough, it’s a remarkably cohesive effort.
Irene Kelley shows us that she has no room for fluff in her new record right from the start; the foursome of “Something About A Train Sound,” “Bluegrass Radio,” “Cabbage Head” and “Thunderbird” are devoid of radio polish and pop refinements, but they’re not guttural groove ballads by any stretch of your imagination, either. This is an album that upholds the notion of barebones songwriting producing the best results in a country-styled LP, and though it isn’t as popular a concept as it was some thirty or forty years ago, it’s working to Kelley’s benefit tremendously well on this occasion.
It isn’t that there aren’t old fashioned bluegrass elements in Benny’s TV Repair (check out “Walk With Me Today,” “Highway Back To You” and the namesake song to hear what I mean), but more that they’re being repurposed with a folksy country melodicism that has been absent from the genre’s sound for decades. The lyrics here are very contemporary, with “Out Of Arkansas” stealing the show as the album’s crown jewel, and while I’m sure Kelley wasn’t trying to make an alternative bluegrass anthology in this LP on purpose, she has moments where she shows the kind of ingeniousness that such an endeavor would inevitably require.
This artist has become known for her voice as much as she has her composing, and I think a lot of the tracks in Benny’s TV Repair do a better job of highlighting her harmonic abilities than many of her past recordings did. “Faster Than Angels Could Fly” is a chill-inducing song that can’t help but remind us of a cross between Jewel and a young, uncorrupted Trisha Yearwood, while in “The Hills Of Home” and “Anything To Help You Say Goodbye,” she could’ve performed all by herself without the assistance of a band and still made a big emotional impact on listeners.
You don’t have to be a big bluegrass fan to enjoy Benny’s TV Repair, but those who are should set a moment aside to give it a close listen over the holiday season. There have been so many hot releases in 2019 from the ‘grass community that trying to compile a list of the best ones would be too time-consuming for me to attempt, but if such a list were to be made, I would put this record near the top tier. As I see it, Kelley is shining like a true star in her latest album.
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