On his debut disc “Halloween,” Nashville newcomer Ruston Kelly plays country. Yet with his deep, sonorous voice and sinister Gothic storytelling, his songs also lean toward the dark sound of one of his heroes, the late Leonard Cohen. He’s not sure why he was compelled to stare into the abyss. “Maybe I was born inside a shadow/I’m always starving for the light,” he ponders on the harmonica-haunted “1,000 Graves.” “But I think it’s totally true that a songwriter has to do that if you want to write anything that’s real or relevant,” he says.
How did your family end up moving to Belgium when you were a kid?
My dad worked for a paper company, and we had been moving every two years since I was born. He was always the guy that was willing to transfer, and nobody else wanted to go to Belgium. And I thought that sounded like a terrible idea, because I was a junior in high school, it was going to be my senior year, I was dating this super-babe girl who was really cool, and I was playing a lot of guitar. I was in my element. I was like, “Man, this is about to change my world!”
And it did. In a good way?
It was one of the most important things that ever happened to me, to be sure. I’d never been to a foreign country before, and I was one of only a few Americans in town. And I think my subconscious needed to connect to something that would root me. So I started reading a book about The Carter Family, just out of boredom, and it was a really fascinating story about these hillbillies that had created country. So I listened to their old ‘20s recordings, and I was just blown away. Which led me to Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, June Carter’s early career, and then inevitably to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
Then, on a whim, you moved to Nashville?
My sister had just moved there, and I had just discovered The Carter Family and I was obsessed with Mother Maybelle. And I started a political bluegrass band there called Bloodbath and Beyond, and we just got high and played bluegrass. Then we started a jazz fusion band, and inked a booking deal. Then BMG signed me to an artist/songwriting contract, after I’d been through a drug period and cleaned myself up. But I wasn’t ready to say what I wanted to say yet. I was still in and out of rehab, and I wasn’t focused. But with “Halloween,” I was like, “Yes! This what I’ve been trying to do the whole time!”
IF YOU GO
Pokey LaFarge, Ruston Kelly
Where: Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 19
Contact: (415) 346-6000, www.ticketmaster.com
countrygothicHalloweenLeonard CohenPop MusicRuston Kelly