For the Ride Home -- the moving major label debut of singer-songwriter Josh Kelley -- has the homespun intimacy and freewheeling grace of a prized road trip tape. Intimate and openhearted, the album promises to be the starting point on a far longer journey for this twenty-two-year-old from Augusta, Georgia. Produced with subtle sensitivity by John Alagia -- well regarded for his work with Dave Matthews Band, among others -- For the Ride Home is a warm and revealing introduction to a young artist who sounds as though he's here for the long run.
An art major and golf star at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, Kelley came up with the title for his major label debut while in the dorms. "There would be some break coming up and everybody would be burning CDs -- random mixes of things," recalls the lanky twenty-two-year-old. "They'd all say 'I'm burning something for the ride home.' With this CD -- the way I've writen it and all its different moods -- I really want it to be their music for the ride home."
For the Ride Home is a smooth and scenic trip. Right from the infectious, uptempo romance of "Amazing" -- the album's opening track and first single -- through standouts like the soulful "Poker Face," the sensuous, rocky "I Saw U" and heartfelt "Home To Me," For the Ride Home offers a luminous collection of well-crafted songs with rootsy touches and understated southern charm.
Making music has been important to Kelley since his mother got him his first guitar at age eleven. Along with his younger brother Charles, Kelley formed a group called Inside Blue. When Josh was only fourteen years old, Inside Blue cut a five-song CD of what Kelley describes as "Southern rock pop and soul" called Heckle Street. Rather than get heckled, the CD was promising enough to earn the interest of at least one major label and led to Kelley meeting up with another music man from Augusta -- the legendary Godfather of Soul James Brown. "We met James a bunch of times," Kelley says with a grin. "I can still remember when he said, 'You boys are good!'"
Such praise certainly made Kelley feel good, but he wouldn't make his next big leap forward until he started focusing on songwriting while at college, inspired by such favorite artists as James Taylor, Paul Simon, Dave Matthews and Austin-based singer-songwriter Monte Montgomery. Since he started writing and recording his songs himself, Kelley has scarcely stopped. The multi-instumentalist estimates that to do date he's recorded enough material to fill fourteen CDs. Before long, his live performances at Oxford venues like The Blue Marlin and Proud Larry's were turning Kelley into something of a local hero.
"Oxford, MIssissippi is my true stomping grounds and I owe a lot to that town," Kelley says. "For the last two years, I played like three shows a week, a lot of them locally. Before you knew it there would be like a thousand people packed into one place to watch this little acoustic dude play." Soon word of this gifted acoustic dude spread and Kelley was bringing in crowds in other cities in Alabama and Georgia and Arkansas.
In a modern twist on a classic tale, Kelley's big break didn't happen in any club but rather on the Internet. "I would record my own songs and put them on my computer, compress them onto MP3 files, take my computer to the library at the University and put my songs in my files for NAPSTER," Kelley remembers. "I'd just kind of SPAM mail people who liked people who kind of sounded like me. So I'd type in like Dave Matthews and get a list of people who have Dave Matthews. Then I'd type in 'If you like Dave Matthews, try Josh Kelley.' I did that day after day after day."
One eventual recipient of Kelly's charming library self-promotion was Eric Clinger, an A&R representative who would eventually sign Kelley to Hollywood Records. First, though, Kelley continued to build up his fan base the old-fashioned way. In 2001, he finally released his first indie release titled Changing Faces. "Things just kept building," Kelley remembers. "I heard myself on the radio for the first time when I was going to an eight o'clock class and then at lunchtime when I was going home I heard it again. It was a real double whammy."
Along the way, Kelley did find the time to pay a few dues. "The worst gig I think was some sorority crawfish function out in the sticks," he says. "It was just me with a guitar and people calling out for 'Freebird.' In those tough situations, I'll always slip into my acoustic rap medley. Sometimes people need a little acoustic Snoop, before they're ready to hear my stuff."
Signing with Hollywood in 2002, Kelley went to work with producer John Alagia and engineer Jeff Juliano at Alagia's home studio in Maryland. "John brought professionalism and a real ear to this album," Kelley says. "We're like brothers -- we're that much alike. He had so many new ideas. John and Jeff are the reasons this album sounds so good. No one person can have a better idea than three." Having played virtually all instrumnets on his recording, Kelley was thrilled to get the chance to work with gifted musicians like the late Jeff Buckley's former drummer Matt Johnson ("I'm the biggest Jeff Buckley fan ever," Kelley says), bassist Tom Freund who's worked with Ben Harper, Ben Peeler who's appeared with The Wallflowers on lap steel guitar and David Yaden, keyboards.
Asked where he hopes For the Ride Home will take him, Kelley pauses to ponder for a moment. "Sure, it would be nice if it was some big hit but I really want it to sell enough so that music can be my career," Kelley says finally. "If there's a hump I need to get over to do this for the rest of my life, that's what I care about. I don't give a sh-- about living in a big a-- house or anything. But as long as I can have a little place with a recording studio, then I'm gonna be a happy man."
And just so Kelley remembers who he is and where he comes from, For the Ride Home features the gorgeous "Being Good," a song specifically created to remind him to stay on his own path. "A buddy of mine told me to write a note so that if I was lucky enough to become known, I'd remember where I came from and what my goals were. So instead, I've written a song -- something I'd have to sing every night that would remind me to stay grounded. And that's what 'Being Good' is all about: 'Did you lose yourself?/Did you lose your health?/Did you leave your memories on the shelf?' I mean, what better way to remind yourself of what's important than with a song?"
Enjoy your Ride.
-- David Wild
--- from the official Josh Kelley website