In recent years, the country music highway has been littered with the remains of former pop stars who have found themselves edged out of mainstream pop music. They usually declare that they have kept their love of country hidden all these years, but country is secretly where their heart has always been.
Josh Kelley would like you to know he is not one of those carpetbaggers. “When I was 21, I tried to get a record deal in Nashville before I signed with Hollywood Records and I got turned down,” the Augusta, Ga., native tells Hitfix, adding that he rejected by the very label, MCA Nashville, that he now finds himself signed to. “Hollywood took my bluegrass songs and made them pop and I was fine with that, but I grew up on country music.”
The country club has been far more welcoming the second time around: “Georgia Clay,” the catchy first single and title track to his MCA Nashville debut, out today (March 22) is No. 18 on Billboard’s Country Songs chart and climbing.
Up until now, Kelley was best known for top 10 adult contemporary hits such as 2003’s “Amazing” and 2005‘s “Only You.” It was on the video shoot for the latter that he met his wife, actress Katherine Heigl—whom he endearingly refers to as “Katie” during our interview. He also co-wrote the theme song for the CBS comedy “Mike & Molly” with Keb’ Mo’.
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Kelley reckons he was simply too square for pop music. “In the pop world, I was told by everybody, ‘Quit talking about golf in your interviews.’ Everything I enjoy wasn’t cool enough to talk about. I was like, ‘This sucks.’ Now I can talk about it all.”
He can also talk and sing about the subjects like marriage and fatherhood that country listeners gravitate towards. His return to country came organically. Kelley asked his music publisher to pitch one of his songs, “Gone Like That,” to Keith Urban. Impressed with that tune, his publishing company came back with $20,000 for him to make a five-song EP for them to shop around to country record labels. “It was the most fun time in my entire life,” Kelley says. “It reinvigorated passion for me. [As] I was writing for the album, we adopted a little baby girl and then I had everything under the sun to write about. I love being a dad and writing about that.”
That love shows on the album, especially on “Naleigh Moon,” a lullaby of sorts written for his 2 1/2 year old daughter. She likes it, but he faces some stiff competition. “Right now, my pretty song gets beat out by the Wiggles and Yo Gabba Gabba,” he says.
Eventually, there may be another baby to write a song for: “We’re definitely going to give Naleigh a little friend. She needs a buddy,” says Kelley.
Most of the songs on “Georgia Clay” are autobiographical, Kelley says, including “Don’t You Go.” “It’s about my wife having to go to the movie set real early in the morning and I want her to just say no, tell them you’re sick,” he says. “All these little things that we feel, those are the most fun to write about.”
Kelley may not have gotten that song cut by Urban yet (Kelley smartly kept it for his own album), but it looks like he’ll have a song, “Like I Do,” on the next Lady Antebellum album. His younger brother Charles is in the Grammy-winning trio. Although Charles didn’t co-write “Like I Do,” Kelley says the two brothers, who are 18 months apart in age, love writing together. “It’s one of the most fun things in the world to do,” Kelley says. “Charles and I have this rapport together when we write together.”
But how do they decide who gets which song? “Someone has to claim it in the middle and say ‘This is mine,bro’,” Kelley says. “But sometimes you can just tell it’s not for you.”
Kelley knows that Nashville has grown skeptical of pop artists who have tried to transition to country, no matter what their back story, and he’s been on a relentless radio promotion tour for months now, spreading the word about how much love and respect he has for country music.
“You do have a bit of hump to overcome,” Kelley admits. “You have to make people understand you’re not just trying to get into their world.”
Kelley is currently on tour with Miranda Lambert and Justin Moore. “When I was doing tours with Third Eye Blind, they quarantined themselves away from you. I hated that. I wanted to hang out,” he says. “With Miranda, we were writing songs, having cocktails. It feels more relaxed, but very professional. People are a little bit nicer.” Kelley catches himself before he paints any one kind of music with the same brush. “I toured with Dave Matthews, and he was really nice, but he’s his own genre.”