Kimberly Kelly has a damn good ear for damn good country music. She’s got a knack for seeking out songs that make listeners feel something; songs that connect. What makes Kelly unique, though, is she also possesses a voice equally capable of capturing the emotion in the songs. With her latest offering, “I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen,” Kelly does just that, presenting what may shape out to be the album of the year.
That doesn’t mean she’s a slouch putting pen to paper, either. Though she only had a hand in two of the album’s twelve tracks, she penned the album’s standout track, “Person That You Marry,” with her husband, Brett Tyler, and A-list songwriter, Lori McKenna.
We chatted with Kelly all about “I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen,” her “best song wins” mindset, her artistic growth, resilience and more!
Pro Country: Who were some of the earliest artists you remember hearing that made you fall in love with country music?
KK: I was really into Randy Travis, The Judds and Clay Walker. I remember loving Faith Hill’s first record, and Shania Twain’s The Woman in Me too, but my first obsession was definitely Randy Travis.
PC: You got stage experience singing harmony with your sister, Kristen, on tours with Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson. What was it like for you to be on tours of that stature, and what were you able to glean from the experience?
KK: It was incredible. We had both played a lot in Texas before she got her record deal and went on those massive tours. I was used to playing an instrument, and with her, I had a different role: I was singing backup. The first gig, I didn’t know what to do with my hands [laughs]. I felt completely awkward. As time went on, it was such an interesting learning experience, because I was able to watch a huge crowd and their willingness to go wherever you wanted to take them. I only had a few lines to sing, so I got to actively watch them while Kristen was singing the whole time. It helped me when I got back on stage singing myself; I wasn’t constantly thinking that these people are waiting for me to fail or mess up. Even if you do mess up, they don’t care; they’re just there to have a good time. I could watch their faces and watch them experience the music. It gave me a unique perspective, and it helped me gain more confidence when I went back to singing myself.
PC: Kristen was signed to a major label and charted a song on Billboard a decade ago. As you began forging your own path with music, did you look to her for advice, or were you more interested in learning and making your own mistakes as you went?
KK: Absolutely. I still ask her questions now [laughs]. I’ve learned so much from her. I think I’m forging my path naturally because our styles of country music are different, but she is 100% somebody I look to for the pros and cons and how to go about doing things and making them as easy as possible.
PC: You had released two albums in the late 2000s, but your 2018 EP, Don’t Blame It On Me, was what put you on the radar of many in the traditional country community. How important was that EP in your artistic maturity process?
KK: I made that EP with the impression that it was going to be the last thing I ever did. I had learned so much about being a writer and a co-writer, and just knowing I could be an artist that didn’t have to write everything. That album solidified for me how important a song is, whether you wrote it or not. I think that showed maturity as an artist. It got me my record deal. It was the truest stamp of who I was. It went out into the world and got me to where I am now. It spoke to people.
PC: You signed with Show Dog Universal in 2021. Can you talk about how you came onto their radar and the courting process?
KK: David Macias, the president of Thirty Tigers, randomly came upon the EP and tweeted out that a new artist was blowing his mind. He said he hoped it was the start of great things for me. I was sitting alone at a diner in Nashville eating a burger right after I had an interview for the EP, and I thought for a second, “who’s that?” When I realized who it was, I thought to myself that Thirty Tigers was exactly the place I wanted to be. I ended up getting a meeting with him, and he felt like there was still a place for me on the radio, and then he pitched me to Show Dog, who has a radio team and a little bit more of a promotion staff.
PC: Show Dog was formed by Toby Keith, who obviously has an impressive resume in music. What does it mean to you to have someone of Toby’s talent in your corner and to have his belief in you as an artist?
KK: My husband Brett and I went back and listened to all of Toby’s hits, and we realized he pretty much wrote them all. I think people tend to forget that. He was such a trailblazer, an outlaw almost, that he reached a point with “How Do You Like Me Now” where he was just going to do things his way, and it worked. I remember being a Toby Keith fan as a kid, and it’s wild to think that I’m in his world now. You kind of get immune to meeting some of your heroes when you’re in the music business. I have to remind myself, “that’s Toby Keith, and that’s a big deal.” Even with this record I put out, I only wrote two of the songs. Part of me thought that because Toby wrote so much of his stuff that he might look at it like “why didn’t you write more?” Knowing that he believes in me and my sense of song is all I need. I’ve got that Toby Keith stamp of approval [laughs].
PC: Your bio mentions that you thought your time had passed when you signed your record deal. Is there an added level of validation in your signing after having that mentality?
KK: Of course. I stuck it out. I kept going. It’s kind of like the saying “I may not be the most talented, but I just didn’t quit.” If it’s meant for you and you just keep working at it, it’s going to find you. Luckily, it found me. I always thought I had what it took, but now there’s all these other people that believe I have what it takes as well. They’ve invested in me.
PC: The title of your new album, “I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen,” is an interesting story. Can you run us through how you came to the title and the dare that made it happen?
KK: I knew Billy Joe Shaver really well. They had an exhibit in the Hall of Fame called “Outlaws and Armadillos.” A friend of mine sent me a picture of the Billy Joe Shaver quote that said “I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen. You’re listening to these songs or I’ll whoop your ass,” which is what Billy Joe told Waylon Jennings after Billy Joe came to Nashville with songs for Waylon to record and he kind of pushed him off. Billy Joe said that line. I was at the point in my career where I didn’t know if it was going to work out for me, but I got this chance and I really believe in these songs. I sent that picture to David Macias, and I said “this is my mantra! You want some good, well-written country songs, then listen to these songs, by God.” He dared me to name my record after that line, so I did [laughs].
PC: “Summers Like That” is a song that struck us when one of its co-writers, Karyn Rochelle, performed it at a Garth Brooks concert a few years ago. Can you talk about what struck you about the song and what went into the decision to release it as the lead single from “I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen”?
KK: Probably the same thing that struck you about the song. It name drops all of the songs from when I was growing up listening to country music, but they did it so tastefully. It tells a story. If you don’t know those songs, you may not even necessarily notice that they’re getting dropped. It’s a song about young love, falling really hard for somebody and then getting your heart broken. There’s just a certain stamp that’s left on you with a first love. It reminded me of “Tim McGraw” by Taylor Swift and “Maybe It Was Memphis” and “Strawberry Wine.” The music and the message just linked up so well.
PC: “Blue Jean Country Queen” is a track you co-wrote with your husband and Steve Wariner, and Steve is also featured on the track. What was it like for you to share a writing room with Steve and to have him perform on the song?
KK: It’s the same kind of thing like having Toby Keith in your corner: you’re looking at him and trying to play cool, and you don’t want to yell, “Oh my God, you’re Steve Wariner!” [laughs]. You just turn that off and start throwing out ideas, and you get lost in the writing process. We wrote it over Zoom, but it was crazy when we got to go to his house. He played guitar on it, and we went to his house so he could play us what he had tracked. Him and my husband geeked out on music equipment while we were there, and I was just looking around thinking “we’re at Steve Wariner’s recording studio!” [laughs]. It was surreal.
PC: “Person That You Marry” is our favorite song on the record, and is a song you co-wrote with your husband, Brett, and Lori McKenna. Can you take us in the room and talk about how the song came together?
KK: One of my best friends went to lunch with somebody who was going through a divorce, and he said that to her: “you know the person that you marry, but not the one that you divorce.” I said, “Samantha, if you don’t write that, I will!” [laughs]. We had a writing appointment with Lori, and I thought I really had to impress her. It was our first write with her. I’d started reading a book about a woman who was married to someone who was going off to war, and in the very beginning of the book, she was saying that she’d loved her husband, but she’d never been in love with her husband when he’d been at war. I thought that was exactly what going through a divorce was like. We were Zooming, and I threw out the title. And then I threw out, “I knew you in love, but this is war.” Then we just went to town on it. Lori and I were going down different tracks on the second verse, and then my husband said that we should focus on the time when they were in love. I feel like people who’ve gone through a divorce can resonate with it, and with people who haven’t, it makes them want to go home and think that they never want to experience something like that. I’m really proud of that song. If anybody wants to ask why I didn’t write more than two songs on the record, I just point them to that one.
PC: We remember you telling the story around the time you released Don’t Blame It On Me, but can you tell us how you came to record “First Fool in Line”?
KK: That song was pitched to me. I was driving home from work, and it made the hair on my arm stand up. I messaged the plugger who sent it to me, and I said that I loved the song. He said there was one catch: it had been recorded by Don Williams. I said, “That ain’t a catch, that’s more affirmation that I chose a good song!” [laughs]. It evoked an experience that I went through, and the team liked it enough to carry it onto this record.
PC: “Black Rose” is a Billy Joe Shaver cover that closes the record. Given that you had a long relationship with Billy, what did it mean to you to be able to record one of his songs? And what went into the decision to record “Black Rose”?
KK: It started with the quote, and then we thought we had to record one of his songs, because it would just tie the whole album together. My husband and I went through his entire catalog, including songs that weren’t even released. A lot of his songs are about ladies, which is fine, but we wanted to find one that had more of a story and wasn’t about knockin’ boots [laughs]. This one just felt right.
PC: Do you have a favorite song on “I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen”? What makes it so special to you?
KK: I love the song “I Remember That Woman.” I was pitched that song for the EP. I had been writing with Kent Blazy, and he sent it to me and I loved it. I feel like I’ve lived through that song, and now I’m the woman who may see someone else in the mirror. I also love it because it’s not man-bashing. I’ve had my heart broken, but I look back at those relationships and I was having a good time. I learned from them. I feel like that’s what the song is about.
PC: Several songs from the album have landed on major playlists on Apple Music and Spotify. How encouraging is it to get that industry support so close to release day?
KK: It’s very encouraging. Even when we put out “Summers Like That,” I think it might have ended up on a playlist on the second day. My team called and said that I had no idea how hard that was to do. I almost don’t know how difficult it is, but I kind of like that. I’m extremely thankful. I’ve been sitting with this album for a while, and then I hand it over and the songs get added to playlists on the first day. I think that’s a good indication that I might get to make a second record [laughs]. There’s an old Ray Wylie Hubbard quote: “You have to keep your gratitude higher than your expectations.” That’s kind of where I’m at.
PC: You’ve proven yourself as a songwriter both on this project and your past ones, but you largely focused on outside songs this time around, which is something you’ve mentioned a few times with us. Can you take us through your creative process and how important a “best song wins” mindset is for an artist?
KK: For me personally, from the albums that I grew up on, songs have changed. I am one hundred percent all for everyone writing. I’m married to a songwriter, and I think sometimes there are people who are poets and are just born to write. I think sometimes those songs get overlooked in the current climate for whatever reason. This was my mindset with this record and I think it’s going to be the same mindset I take into my future records: I treated this like it was the last record I was ever going to make. I want to say something. Even if I didn’t write it, I chose the songs, so I obviously saw a little bit of myself in them and felt it had a message that needed to be heard. We write, we gather and we hunt songs, and then we throw them in a hat and we all collectively pick the best. Like you said, may the best song win. A lot of times, you don’t even know the names of the people who wrote your favorite songs. The songs are so important. It’s an age-old thing: it all begins with a song. None of us would be here without that.
PC: To that point of wanting to have something to say with your music, what do you hope listeners take away from “I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen” after listening all the way through?
KK: I stepped back and looked at it, and I feel like it’s about being a strong, confident woman. Whether it’s being vulnerable or flirtatious or kicking somebody to the curb; it takes time to become a confident person. It’s about growing through all of that. I hope that people can find strength in it. I hope it makes them feel something. I hope it touches a chord somewhere or another, because that’s how you know you’re still living: if you’re feeling something.
PC: We talked about the albums you released in the late 2000s. In the time since you released them, what do you think your biggest area of growth has been? What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about yourself along the way?
KK: I’ve gotten more confident as an artist. My ability pick songs has grown, and my voice has gotten much better. My husband ironed out some of the kinks in my voice. It’s like looking back at old prom pictures when I look back at those first two records [laughs]. I had to take those records down when we put this record out because they’re not distributing them and don’t own them, and I said that was alright [laughs]. There’s so many people back home in Texas that fell in love with those albums, and thank God they stuck with me that whole time. Some people still love those albums. When they got taken down, I would get messages asking where one specific song was. And I just said, “well…” [laughs].
PC: Along with promoting “I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen,” what are your plans for the rest of the year?
KK: I’m going to start writing again. I might be meeting some radio people as well. I’m having what’s called one-offs; I’ll play random shows here and there. I’m not on a tour because I just came out and nobody knows who I am, and they book those tours months in advance. I’m just being ready when people call.
PC: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Kimberly Kelly: I just quit my job in May. I’m not Dolly Parton, but I feel like I’m 100% that 9-5. Times are changing. There used to be a thing where if you have a plan A, you can’t have B. I’ve worked A, B, C, D, E, F and G to get to where I’m at, and I still made it. I just want people to know that if you’re doing something that’s on your heart, just stick with it. I am a testament to that. If it’s what’s supposed to happen, it’ll happen.
*Kimberly’s music is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!*
*All images by David McClister*
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