Kelly may be a smart-ass, but his rich storytelling is passionate and compelling. The ballad "Johnny and June" offers a look into the lives of ordinary people who loved the Carter-Cash couple. His "On a Michigan Night" (a finalist in North Carolina's Flat Rock Music Festival Hank Williams Songwriter Contest) is a mournful wish to return home, with a sassy bass line. When Kelly recognizes his buddy Dave Boutette in the audience, he points him out to everyone and plays a waltz they cowrote called "Sad Stories of Red Wagons and Ponies." It's sad, all right pulls deep at my heart but right pretty.
Later, on one of summer's very last days, I stand on a sidewalk and try to rant about politics to John Latini while Eric Kelly plays a solo gig. But Dirty John doesn't listen; he just sways a bit. "I love this song," he says, gesturing toward the stage. It's another waltz, heartbreakingly sad sadder than the political atmosphere I rage against, yet also very sweet. And to my surprise, this beautiful, sad song and humming, smiling Latini make me feel better. We still have music. We still have our friends.
Eric Kelly and the Dirty Johns are at TC's Speakeasy on Friday, October 1.
[Originally published in October, 2004.]