Ruston Kelly Breaks Down His Emo (And Taylor Swift) Obsessions on 'Dirt Emo' Cover Album

Ruston Kelly
Alexa King

Ruston Kelly

Before he was a rising alt-country star, an accomplished Nashville songwriter or husband to Kacey Musgraves, Ruston Kelly was an angsty teenager sitting in his South Carolina bedroom and wailing along to Dashboard Confessional and Taking Back Sunday.

His emo-rock fandom was a point of contention in the Kelly household. Kelly’s father was a steel guitar player and raised his son on the titans of folk and Americana — not the high-school melancholy of Chris Carrabba’s “Screaming Infidelities.” 

And for a while, it seemed like Dad had the last word. Kelly landed a publishing deal with BMG Nashville in 2013 and wrote songs for Tim McGraw and the Josh Abbot Band among others before releasing his own country-imbued debut LP, Dying Star, in 2018. 

But now, Kelly is reengaging with the bleeding tunes of his youth as he prepares to release Dirt Emo: Vol. 1,  a cover album that reimagines emo’s glory days with a little more twang -- plus a few left-field surprises that don’t exactly fall into the swoopy hair and black nail polish category. 

Dashboard, Blink-182, Wheatus, Saves The Day, My Chemical Romance and more all made the cut for this sharp tribute EP, which drops Oct. 11 (Rounder Records). Here’s what Kelly had to say to Billboard about each of the eight tracks. 

First off, what the hell is “dirt emo”? 

It’s really simple. Growing up, we always had folk/Americana/country instruments in the house. My dad's a steel guitar player — that’s the first instrument that I remember hearing. He's the one that taught me how to play guitar and we would jam together. But when I was coming of age like 13, 14, 15, all I wanted to play was emo/screamo, you know. And my instrumentation for those songs just naturally lent themselves to more of the folksy vibe. It was just natural for me. So now having the ability to put it on a record, it's really cool because I've been playing these songs like this my whole life.

For the lead track, Dashboard Confessional’s “Screaming Infidelities,” how were you able to get Chris Carrabba on it? And is this your wife's dream scenario, considering how much she likes Dashboard? 

It's crazy. I mean, I took a picture of Chris Carrabba's face to my barber when I was 15, and I was like, "Cut my hair like him." He was one of my biggest songwriting inspirations. We have a mutual friend and we met at one of his shows. He was a big fan of [my debut LP] Dying Star and we traded numbers and we were just kind of texting back and forth. We just stayed in touch and then when this project came around and we actually got the green light on it… I mean, he's like the king of emo. And it's kind of amazing to call him a friend now.

But to do that song in particular -- like, the song that I would just listen to to get over things and to figure out who I was as an artist… that song was tantamount to all that. I would just be screaming this song in my room and my dad would get annoyed that I was trying to learn how to sing emo style in my room. It was super full-circle for me.

For Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag,” the live version you include on the album is a killer full-band reshaping of it into an alt-country rendition. How did you sort out this new arrangement? 

“Teenage Dirtbag” was a song that was in my repertoire when I was younger, and it didn't seem like it was too hard of a translation from youth to maturity to bring the song with me and still mean it. You know, emo songs can lend themselves to being saccharin and a little bit too much. But there was just so much in the intent of the song. Who hasn't felt like a teenage dirtbag and felt like a piece of shit in high school and want to date this girl and no one will give you the time of day? That's a real place. I mean, people still experience that in their adult life, too. I was rejected on Tumblr. [Laughs.]

Saves the Day’s “At Your Funeral” is one of the lesser-known songs on the set for the casual emo fan, or at least for your fans who may be checking out this record. Why include this song? 

It was one of those songs that I sang to 60,000 people in my room when I was a kid. When I was trying to get over a girl, that song in particular… I mean, it was the ultimate getting over a breakup song. It empowered you. I think essentially what emo did for my generation was to empower us to say, “It's okay to be vulnerable and sensitive.” A lot of those guys came from the punk world. So there was a punk sensibility associated with that "edginess.” I just really connected with that. “At Your Funeral” was one of the ultimate emo songs.

For Blink-182’s “Dammit,” you slow the song way down and deconstruct it. Was there any hesitancy to do too much to this one? 

No, not really. This song is a good example of, in that era whether it was pop-punk or emo or somewhere in the middle, the melodic sensibility was insane. These are like nursery rhyme-sounding songs, they are incredible. That's a huge theme on putting this compilation together. It's taking a melody that I think is really beautiful and playing the song towards that feeling of “this melody really moves me, I'm going to play this song just like that.” “Dammit” was one of the first ones where I was like, “God even the riff, it's just really pretty.”

Onto Taylor Swift’s 2012 ballad, “All Too Well,” which is obviously not a quintessential emo song. How does it fit in with Dirt Emo

I think that the majority of Taylor's writing, especially on Red, is so confessional, it's emotional, it goes there. It uses language to convey detailed emotions and wounds and vulnerability. And I think that is what a lot of emo stuff is. Lyrically, it’s an amazingly emotional song.

No song is more out of place here than your cover of the Carter Family’s “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree” -- a traditional folk song from 1927. Did I hear you got to visit the family’s original Virginia home? 

Yeah, I met John Carter Cash several years ago. He's really familiar with the ex-addict recovery world, so were able to talk about a lot of that stuff for hours. I felt comfortable to talk to him. 

Once in a while he just calls and checks in, and he called this one time, and it was like, “Hey man, if you ever need a place to go and write, my grandmother's house that my parents bought back in the 80's, there's no one out there. You go out there and have complete solace and peace.” I was putting it together, like, “Mother Maybelle's house that the Carter family lived in the 40's? Uh yes, I will go up there and do that.” 

So I went out there myself. I was barefoot most of the time. It's a super-country house, nothing fancy, but it was like being in a museum but with no glass, just some of their stuff laying all around. Family heirlooms and stuff. It was an extremely spiritual experience, [with] the vibes that family left, whatever was going on within that part of the world. It was a really good vibe for that house. I went into the living room and started recording. That's where I started ‘Weeping Willow.” 

And the last track, My Chemical Romance’s “Helena” -- why did you only record the first 75 seconds of it? 

That song is ultra-haunting. Again, going back to its melodic foundation, it's just really incredible. It's beautiful. And I just felt like capturing a small portion of it. The first chorus of it was enough to give a dose of how creepy it was. Or how haunting that melody is, and to let it hang and also just to say “so long and goodnight” unexpectedly. It's pretty emo, I think.

The album has a “Vol. 1” tacked on the end. Can we hope for a Vol. 2 at some point? Maybe add some Taking Back Sunday and more Dashboard? 

You can absolutely hope for a Volume Two.

Anything else coming soon, non-emo related?

Yeah, I will be going in and recording LP2 in November.