By Peter Rodman
Around 12 years ago, Casey Kelly began showing up at his Nashville gigs with this other singer-songwriter, casually combining his laid back storytelling style with her born-to-sing harmonies. Audiences might have come to see Casey sing the hits he’d co-written for folks like Tanya Tucker (“Soon”) and George Strait (“The Cowboy Rides Away”), but they often were charmed by his casual recollections (delivered in an almost Jimmy Stewart-like cadence) from his Tin Pan Alley days to his California affiliations--with the likes of Loggins & Messina and Jackson Browne, to name a few.
|Casey Kelly's self-titled 1972 Elektra album|
Fast-forward to the '90s, when he appeared on my radio show in Nashville (on 'Radio Lightning 100'), now a hit songwriter for the above-mentioned artists and more.
As we taped an interview in my tiny West End apartment, we were suddenly interrupted by an irritated but determined wasp. I flailed about with a fly-swatter, until Casey gently said, "No, no, no...don't hurt him!" With that, he simply cupped his hand in the air, and calmly walked over to the window, releasing the lil' winged one, to sting another day.
Subsequent years (and songs) have borne out his gentle nature.
Casey was always full of surprises…
But the biggest surprise of all was his on-and-offstage partner, Leslie Ellis--who started appearing with him maybe a dozen years or so ago.
|'Kelly & Ellis' (as yet un-named, then)|
Photograph © 2014 Peter Rodman.
She’d first mention, then (ever so briefly) demonstrate her own performing background--which includes Grammy-winning classics (“My Heart Will Go On,” shadowing Celine Dion’s vocals, and adding backgrounds) as well as Broadway shows. (Cats, La Cage, City of Angels, etc. )
All of this came rolling gracefully off the stage in a manner so understated, even the most jaded Bluebird Cafe attendees might have thought, 'What just happened here?"
The point is, by the time their sets were over, audiences had taken a journey they hadn't quite expected to take.
Over time, the two performers began formalizing their arrangements. She’d harmonize on his songs, as he’d do on hers--adding expert guitar licks from a barstool onstage--until finally, a couple years back, they decided to formalize THE arrangement:
Casey and Leslie formed a group.
Not what you were expecting?
Oh, yeah…well...they got married, too.
(Are ya happy now?)
And the result is unlike just about any other act you’ll find.
Lest you imagine some sort of schlock-fest here, rest assured…it’s still an acoustic act, thoughtfully and tastefully presented, but refreshingly new. Think of the music as thoughtful-meets-pizzazz, as the introspective songwriters finally 'Sing Out,' in the parlance of that classic folkie magazine.
Most of the songs they currently perform are from their forthcoming debut album together, which harkens back to Casey's Elektra solo debut, as much as it does Leslie's onstage and platinum recording stints, both on Broadway and in L.A.
I dare say it's quite possible they're Nashville’s most endearing onstage duo--though some disgruntled fans of the recently-canceled ABC series ('Nashville') might just egg me, for that assessment.
The difference is... 'Kelly & Ellis' are real.
I must confess, describing what they do is much harder than enjoying it. The potential for clichés, especially when describing a duo, is endless:
Nah, that sounds like NATO.
“The Perfect Blend?”
Not unless you’re Maxwell House. (which, incidentally, also began here in Nashville)
Okay, now you’re in risky territory!
You’ll just have to see Kelly & Ellis perform (this is about the songs, and the hearts behind them) to hear how two very different performers ended up brewing such a pleasing blend.
Good things take time...(Oops…there I go again, with the clichés!)
...and they've been busy lately--honing, shaping, and road-testing some of the best new material to come out of Nashville since...well, Nashville.
How about if I just simplify things?
If you get the chance, go check 'em out.
This opinion column © 2016 by Peter Rodman.
All Rights Reserved.