The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

57° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Country’s newest darling is an eclectic mix


    Once every few years, country music is blessed with the advent of a female artist whose musicality blows away those who have come before her.

    With the rise of talent shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice,” finding these musicians has become easier than ever. However, that media prevalence places an added burden on those who are doing all they can to rise organically, who find their foundation in the grassroots country communities that surround places like Austin and Nashville.

    Sara Jean Kelley, of the latter southern location, is taking that increasingly difficult route and finding success along the way.

    Born to a musical mother, Kelley’s talent was evident early on. With no formal training but inspired by country great Reba McEntire, Kelley started writing songs at just 7-years-old. Growing up in Nashville, the country epicenter of the music industry, it wasn’t a surprise that Kelley’s songwriting always seemed to be geared toward country music.

    It’s evident, however, that she’s still finding her feet — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On tracks like “The Science of Kissing” or her haunting rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Kelley unites folk sensibilities and gentle guitar arrangements to evoke an image of dusty roads and long travels, rather than ten-gallon hats and pickup trucks.

    That same sense of alternative artistry comes across in her vocal delivery as well. On the aforementioned “Jolene,” Kelley channels a down-home Stevie Nicks, imparting passion and misery into a song that’s been done a thousand times over by as many country artists. It’s that ability to breathe new life into the classics that stands as a testament to her talent, independent of her songwriting ability or where she stands as a country artist today.

    “Country’s coming full circle,” Kelley said. “Mainstream artists are starting to get back in touch with their roots.” In a time when the spotlight is still firmly affixed to more mainstream artists like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, Dierks Bentley’s full bluegrass album and Miranda Lambert’s brilliant lyricism are often overlooked. Though Kelley said that pop country is a guilty pleasure of hers, returning to country’s origins seems to be her main motivation.

    Unsurprisingly, her foundational approach has been well-received. Slots on both stops of the Country Thunder festival, as well as a main stage appearance at the BayFest Music Festival in Mobile, Ala., have helped propel Kelley’s budding career. Performances such as these were the basis for an artist’s popularity in a time before social media, though Kelley knows the importance of maintaining her online presence as well.

    Perhaps it’s a result of her youthfulness or an acute awareness of what it takes to build a loyal fan base in a genre such as country, but Kelley’s on the right track. She adds that she’s about as addicted to Twitter as country superstar Blake Shelton, an artist known for his outlandish and hysterical approach to the social media website. “He’s hilarious, and I totally respect him for that,” Kelley said. Kelley models Shelton’s connective approach in order to stay connected to her fans.

    It’s also Kelley’s motivation to stay real and her ability to lash disparate songwriting elements together that sets her apart from her contemporaries.

    Still on the rise, she spends her time in the studio, onstage, or in a van, cutting her teeth in the same way that those long before her did. Through her notes of Americana, folk and true country grit, she’s slowing gaining confidence in her craft — and gaining momentum in the process.

    “I always find it hard to fit myself into a genre, but as long as I’m genuinely me and I stay that way, that’s all that I can strive to be,” Kelley said.

    Follow us on Twitter @wildcatarts and follow K.C. @KristianCLibman.

    More to Discover
    Activate Search