The Kelleys

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This family band was an institution in Kentucky bluegrass music from the '50s through the '70s, heard regularly on the most popular country music programs; as well as in countless personal appearances…
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This family band was an institution in Kentucky bluegrass music from the '50s through the '70s, heard regularly on the most popular country music programs; as well as in countless personal appearances throughout that state and in Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina, often in tandem with the wonderful performing horse Stardust. The members of the family include the youngest brother Don Kelley, who wrote most of the original songs the group recorded and is considered a first-class bluegrass tunesmith; his "Leavin' Tennessee" the type of brisk bluegrass hike that could convince even the most skeptical listener of the connection between this music and the feeling of having just hiked to the top of an Appalachian trail. The Kelley family hailed from the mining-poor Hazard, KY, area, but the father did not eke his living out far below the ground with a pick and shovel; having instead carved out a niche involving several different trades, including farming, running a small grocery store and eventually preaching trade. It was the latter devotion that made him feel he should lay his sinful banjo down, but prior to that, old-time music had been a normal part of the family's life.

The siblings formed their first band in 1946, featuring Hargis Don Kelley on lead vocal and fiddle (he would later drop the "Hargis"), Ben Kelley on tenor vocals, Simon and Nathan Kelley on guitars, and Denver Kelley on solo vocals, along with new family member Christine Kelley, wife of Nathan. She would prove to be perhaps the band's most popular member from the audience standpoint, earning the nickname of "Kentucky Mountain Girl." Don Kelley had been playing the fiddle from the age of six, absconding with a neighbor's instruments during periods when he didn't have his own. The fantastic vocalist and banjo picker Cousin Emmy got the group its first real start as guests at one of her shows at a local theater, leading to a 30-minute daily radio show on the new Hazard station WKIC. The band name the Kelley Family was born, and later shortened, and the repertoire was a freewheeling collection of solos, duets, trios, and quartets with a heavy gospel influence. Denver Kelley was a short-lived presence, leaving music for a career in electric engineering. The remaining bandmembers literally put hand to axe to raise funds for a relocation to the more exciting show-business town of Knoxville, embarking on a labor-intensive operation cutting and selling mining timber to the coal companies. By 1947, the group was where they wanted to be, with a job on Knoxville's WROL sponsored by a department store.

Along came Homer Harris. He was known as the "seven-foot cowboy," so it can be assumed he was stooping slightly. He was starring on the Midday Merry Go Round on a rival station, but introduced the talented new family band to the manager of a local supermarket chain who turned out to be a magnificent benefactor, sponsoring the group on local radio for more than a decade as well as bankrolling a traveling revue. The inclusion of the aforementioned horse as part of this outfit can be attributed to the same Harris, who owned the animal in question and used it in his performances. The entire show package was called the Cas Walker Farm & Home Hour Show, and at times included country greats such as Cal Smith, Junior Huskey, the Bailey Brothers, Johnson Brothers, Sauceman Brothers -- yet another bluegrass brother group, not a moonshine company -- and others.

Eventually, the roving family would return to the Kentucky home ground for good. This was really when the group's recording career began as well. Settling in Lexington, Don and Ben Kelley formed the Kelley Brothers & the Lonesome Road Boys and began gigging around in the eastern part of the state, plus broadcasting in Pikeville and Whitesburg. In 1955, a Lexington businessman decided to help bankroll some recordings and place the material with a Nashville publisher, Murray Nash. This is a name that pops up with regularity in the accounts of this city's early days in becoming such a publishing empire that songwriters can be summoned as easily as a waiter with a coffeepot -- in fact, most waiters are songwriters in Nashville. The great version of "Leavin' Tennessee" later used as the first cut, first side, of the entire Rounder Early Days of Bluegrass series, was one of the first recordings done through this new association, as well as a superb version of the standard "Devil's Little Angel." The latter song made charts around the country, holding on to its position despite deep advances being made by one Elvis Presley and a new music called rock & roll. There would be no pretending, however, that bluegrass and country would triumph during a time period when the hip-swingers temporarily created a monopoly on the airwaves.

The next scheduled release for the same company by the Kelley Family was deep-sixed in favor of a new label emphasis on rock & roll and dance music. The group went back to its successful radio career, joining on as regulars on the Brown County Jamboree out of Bean Blossom, IN, later a stomping ground for bluegrass padre Bill Monroe. In fact, the Kelley aggregation began performing regularly with Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys as part of their show. Don and Ben Kelley continued the sibling connection by joining -- together, of course -- the band of Bill Monroe's brother Charlie Monroe, the Kentucky Pardners, in 1956. This involved a relocation to the picturesque Mt. Airy, NC, another stronghold of mountain music. Shortly thereafter, Don Kelley went it alone as his brother was out of commission for a lengthy recovery from a spinal-nerve injury. By the late '60s, both brothers were back in action again, with daily radio shows in West Virginia and regional personal appearances. They also performed in the early '70s on the Nashville-based Midnight Jamboree shows with Ernest Tubb, a heavy supporter of the group. During this decade, the family once again rebounded to Kentucky, beginning an interesting later-career phase in which siblings that had long since left the musical side of family activities came back into the scene. This included Denver Kelley, as well as a sister, Mary Lee Kelley Brewer, who sings, plays guitar, and writes songs.

Eventually, the ranks of the group were reduced to nil by deaths. Christine Kelley died in 1977, pretty much ending the band. Don Kelley died in 1990, and the remaining three brothers were gone by the end of the decade. The group's name was misspelled as "the Kellyes" on an early country and rockabilly compilation released by a Japanese record label. Despite having recorded much gospel material, the bluegrass Kelleys have no relation to a more modern Christian act of the same name based off of the Virginia coast.