MAVERICK MAGAZINE **** (4 stars)
by Loudon Temple
Most of the better acts working the Americana circuit these days agree on one thing… There’s a single radio station they all admire for its eclectic programming style and the platform it provides forquality music.
It’s the wonderful WNCW 88.7 which broadcasts out of a community college in Spindale, North Carolina, and thanks to the wonders of the internet, folks all over the globe can tune in - and do - when they get wholly cheesed off listening to what is being served up for the masses on their home turf.
The station’s brightest DJ is a young fella who goes by the name of Martin Anderson. He has a flair for picking up on something new and exciting as well as reminding us of some of the more obscure but classic recordings from the past. He has introduced me to some great new finds in recent times.
When I heard him waxing lyrical about the talents of Michael Kelsh, based out of Nashville, although originally from the same state as the station, I sought out this CD.
Steve Earle is a fan of the soft-voiced writer and the 15-track collection can gently sooth as nicely as a good massage could ever do.
Kelsh left his wilder and more raucous days behind when he stepped down from Southern Culture on The Skids, with whom he was a founder / member. Following the breakout, he produced two albums - GHOST DANCE and STEEL BLUE BALLADS - which caused enough of a stir to lead to collaborations with Earle, Rodney Crowell and the vastly impressive Joy Lynn White (when is she finally going to get the attention she deserves?).
The full-bodied Joy Lynn contributes an impeccable range of luscious vocal harmonies to help elevate WELL OF MERCY on to a different level from the norm, cropping up on no fewer than eight of the tracks. Ex-Newgrass Revival singer John Cowan is in fine vocal form too, to add another satisfying layer of support, and Poco pedal steel player Rusty Young brings a further touch of class to make this a very sophisticated piece of work.
The CD is a gentle comfort zone of ‘70s-style country rock, recalling the hey day and writing style of Jesse Winchester, CSNY, Arlo Guthrie and Jackson Browne.
But, it’s Kelsh who is the main man here. His music absolutely radiates from him with a gentle, understated panache and he possesses the kind of human spirit we should all aspire to, so peace, love, forgiveness and understanding are recurring themes.
Reconciled has all the class and sensitivity of Darrell Scott and finds Joy Lynn White wrapping herself around the lyrics like a warm blanket on a cold night. The 15-track selection is so strong and each song so individually powerful, that it is impossible to single out one over the other.
But, Willing To Burn, with another powerful vocal performance is just beautifully structured and Restlessness so darned good that those two alone would justify adding this to the CD collection.
Americana Music Reviews
by David Pilot
It's starting to get a bit thematic, this concept of finding another relevant singer or songwriter with ties to the Triangle area of North Carolina. The latest one to cross my desk is Michael Kelsh, out of Tarboro, NC and educated at that little university over in Chapel Hill. As part of the area's burgeoning music scene in the late 80s and early 90s, Kelsh fronted Jack and the Cadillacs and was for a time a member of indescribable but uncompromisingly fun outfit Southern Culture on the Skids. By 1993 he'd ensconced himself in the swirling milieu of Nashville's city limits and began building a reputation as a consummate and meticulous artist, a musician with something to contribute on every project he touched.
Apparently the reputation was well earned and reliable, as evidenced by Kelsh's solo and largely acoustic release Well of Mercy, on which the venerable Bill Halverson served as producer. The Houston kid, Rodney Crowell, contributed production assistance along with his own house as recording studio. Musical assists from the likes of Joy Lynn White, Larry Atamanuik, Michael Rhodes, Stu Cole (Squirrel Nut Zippers), John Cowan, and Rusty Young (Poco) helped ensure a well-rounded album that's thought-provoking and comfortable in a Cary Swinney sort of way.
Michael Kelsh's voice is the first thing you'll notice on this album, and the last thing you'll remember when the changer swithces off. It's a magnificent instrument, one of those voices that bears warmth without syrup and earnestness without angst. Comparisons ranging from Townes van Zandt to Jackson Browne come to mind, though Kelsh's pipes have their own distinctive quality.
The music itself is quiet, muted in a pensive manner that fits in country, folk or perhaps that 60s and 70s marriage/fusion of country, pop and rock that spawned songs as great as "American Pie" and as sorry as "Every Woman in the World." Thankfully Kelsh learned from the lessons of those years as he mined that music growing up, and checked the blatantly maudlin hooks and cheesy lyrics at the door.
Eleven of Well of Mercy's fifteen tracks are Kelsh's work alone, four he co-penned with Russ Mason, Rusty Young and Rodney Crowell. The two Mason collaborations, "No Memory" and "Restlessness," are beautiful pieces, and both are standout tracks on the first listen. "No Memory" leads off the disc, building on a blissful pedal steel intro from Young.
There's a thing or two I may not recall
But how can she say
She can't remember at all
The way we stood by each other
When no one else cared
And everything about
Everything we shared
"You Bought It" is a searing example of Kelsh's ability to cut through the crap and nail down a point without pretention. "Homeless Man" addresses one of our culture's most difficult topics from a first person perspective in an equally powerful manner. "Last Train to Redemption" evokes the ghost of Merle Haggard's muse, from the first rattle of Larry Atamanuik's snare through the final cry from Young's pedal steel. Kelsh's vocals here even sound a bit like a younger version of the Hag, and the subject matter is as stone cold country as you'll hear on any record this year.
In fact, the subject matter for Well of Mercy as a whole is as country as a whippoorwill crying in Montgomery, while the music and Kelsh's pipes keep the offerings fresh and relevant in our concrete 21st century abomination of a world. This is a Nashville record in the sense that the players are top-notch and capable of finding the nuances of each track. It's distinctly not a Nashville record in the sense that nuances sans saccharin exist to be found. Halverson's production touches are masterful, and while it can't be said that this is what all country music should sound like these days, well, I can certainly tell you this with confidence: Michael Kelsh is touching the soul of music, and regardless of your genre preference you'll find yourself amazed and touched by Well of Mercy. Its stories, and perhaps more importantly the authentic and genuine manner in which they are delivered, are exactly the type that any real attempt at music must possess. Steve Earle says it's Kelsh's whispered touch that draws you in. Billy Block says Kelsh is one of Nashville's hidden treasures. I say it doesn't matter if we're talking Nashville or Melbourne, Michael Kelsh is making music that needs to be heard.
THE NEWS AND OBSERVER **** (3.5 stars)
by Jack Berndardt
Michael Kelsh, a Tarboro native and former Chapel Hill picker-about-town, has been living and performing in Nashville since 1994. But instead of embracing slick, disposable country pop, Kelsh has stayed true to his gentle, romantic soul.
"Well of Mercy," produced by Bill Halverson and Rodney Crowell, is Kelsh's first album since moving to Music City. It recalls the laid-back feeling of '70s country-rock, a perfect complement to the Lowell George/ Jackson Brown ambience of Kelsh's reflective vocal style.
Kelsh wrote 11 of the songs and co-wrote four. The songs, the strongest and most polished poetry of his career, examine affairs of the heart, rootlessness, resilience and salvation. In the hypnotically wistful opening track, "No Memory," Kelsh comes to terms with denial with neither recrimination nor anger. "Willing to Burn" reflects on the sacrifice exacted by the search for love. And with "Top of This Train" (written with Crowell), he finds a vehicle for freedom from being "pushed or put down."
Kelsh sings with a quiet, intensely personal passion that steels his vulnerability with plucky realism. There's no artifice in his presentation. Like Townes Van Zandt or Steve Earle, Kelsh infuses his songs with an equal measure of folk's directness and country's intimacy.
While in Nashville, Kelsh has surrounded himself with accomplished and respected songwriters and performers, and many of his friends contributed to making "Well of Mercy" a triumph. They include former Poco pedal steel player Rusty Young, ex-Newgrass Revival singer John Cowan, country diva Joy Lynn White, legendary bassist Michael Rhodes and former Squirrel Nut Zipper Stu Cole. "Well of Mercy" is self-released on the Sonorita Music label. If it's not at your favorite record store, ask the clerk to order it from Redeye Distribution.
ROOTS REVIVAL RADIO ***** (5 stars)
"Michael Kelsh writes strong, beautiful songs that you can't get enough of. 'Well of Mercy' gets five stars because Michael knows how to write a song and makes great music. This is a 'must-have' album for anyone who likes Americana-Roots music at it's best."
Paige La Grone
"Nashville based singer-songwriter Michael Kelsh makes gentle folk songs that need to be here now on 'Well of Mercy', his third solo release. Kelsh's songs function as dreamy folkified hymnody in the parlance of common language, uncommonly good guitar work, roughly whispery vocals, and the sweetness of human spirit examined through melody. 'Restlessness', 'Last Train to Redemption' and the beautifully uplifting title track visit and revisit themes of grace, forgiveness and love."
"...a voice good enough to spread out over three singer-songwriter types"
"Kelsh writes songs that have a peculiar power to them. Simple, emotional stories driven by his husky, hypnotic voice wrapped in appealing melodies that recur in the brain for days."
Michael Kelsh steps miles apart from the lot with probably the greatest song on the compilation. Kelsh single-handedly creates the destined to be classic 'Mary Crossed the Border'. Superb production, guitar work and vocals accommodate a tune that stays with you after every listen."