In the past few years alone, Ruston Kelly has established himself as an essential songwriting voice, capable of transforming his unsparing and often-painful self-examination into moments of sublime catharsis. With a lyrical sensibility that constantly shifts from candid to poetic, the South Carolina-born singer/songwriter/guitarist imbues his songs with equal parts nuanced confession and punk-rock irreverence, mining inspiration from such eclectic sources as the Carter Family, transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, and seminal emo act Dashboard Confessional. His third full-length album The Weakness – his most personal and intimate collection of songs to date — was released to tremendous critical acclaim in early 2023. The New York Times hailed it as his “most assured and expansive studio album.” NPR Music noted, “Ruston Kelly’s torn it all down on his new album, The Weakness, so he could build something better,” while Rolling Stone lauded it as an “emotionally daring statement.”
Based in Nashville, Tennessee, Kelly first started playing guitar under the guidance of his dad, Tim “TK” Kelly, a pedal-steel guitarist who frequently performs and records with his son. Because his father worked for a paper mill and often changed job locations, Kelly grew up moving nearly every two years, residing everywhere from Alabama to Belgium. At 17, he took off for Nashville to live with his sister, and in 2013 landed a publishing deal with BMG Nashville. Along with penning songs for artists like Tim McGraw and Josh Abbott Band, he continued working on his own music and later made his debut with the widely praised EP Halloween (a 2017 effort produced by Mike Mogis, who’s also worked with Bright Eyes, First Aid Kit, and Jenny Lewis). Soon after signing with Rounder Records, Kelly released Dying Star: an album that closely details his experience with addiction—including time in rehab and a 2016 overdose—and ultimately captures all the chaos and heartbreak on the way to redemption. The follow-up to Dying Star, 2020’s Shape & Destroy arrived as an up-close look at his experience in getting sober and finally facing the demons that led him to drug abuse in the first place, each revelation presented with an unvarnished honesty.
Kelly’s most full-realized work to date, The Weakness is a blisteringly honest but profoundly hopeful album revealing our vast potential to create strength and beauty from the most trying of experiences. Made with producer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Nate Mercereau (Sharon Van Etten, Leon Bridges, Maggie Rogers), Kelly’s third full-length album emerged as he began processing a number of life-altering changes he’d endured over the previous year, including a very public divorce as well as immense upheaval in his immediate family. A bold departure from the elegant simplicity of his first two albums, the resulting body of work matches its kaleidoscopic sound with some of Kelly’s most illuminating material to date. “With every record I make, I learn so much about myself and who I am as a human and what type of man I want to be,” he says. “In a way it’s a form of self-help, or like I’m building a fort against a lesser version of myself. Then the goal from there is to just keep on growing.”
Buoyed by recent stints opening for Maren Morris and Noah Kahan, Kelly is looking ahead to his headline acoustic tour in support of Weakness, Etc, an all-new EP collecting seven songs recorded in tandem with Kelly’s much-admired third studio album, 2023’s The Weakness. The EP also includes such recently released tracks as “Heaven Made The Darkness” and the plaintive “Belly of the Beast,” both available now on DSPs and streaming services. Weakness, Etc arrives via Rounder Records on Friday, March 22.