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Ruston Kelly of Elmwood lives the rock and roll dream

When most people write their first song they imagine what it would be like to play in front of a large crowd, the lights shining from above and the audience hanging on your every word. Most never get a chance to share their music or live out the dream of being on a rock and roll tour. Ruston Kelly could never have thought he'd get a chance to live out his rock and roll dream when he posted an ad on Craig’s List looking for a saxophonist and a drummer while at Middle Tennessee State University. He probably never imagined that day would start him down the path to a year and half of touring and opening for the likes of G. Love, OAR, and Blues Traveler. He most certainly could not have seen then that all the pieces were already falling into place for the band that would become Elmwood and those first songs wrote on his guitar while living in Cincinnati, would be played night after night in front of large crowds hanging off of his every word. Of course looking back on it now, maybe that is why Ruston describes the first band practice as nothing short of “divine intervention”.

Ruston Kelly center stage

Call it fate, call it circumstance but Ruston may have been born for the non-stop touring lifestyle with out even realizing it. From an early age Ruston’s family had always moved around, most recently spending several recent years in Belgium, while his father, worked as an ex-pat. If anything, this nomadic lifestyle has only fueled his desire to travel, “I have always thought of myself as a Nomad, always wanting to move from place to place”. But it was during his time in Cincinnati attending Wyoming High School that he wrote his first songs, which according to Ruston “were always about girls and my then idea of what I thought politics were about”. Influenced from the simplistic beauty of Neil Young and Johnny Cash as well as Jackson Brown, Ruston’s early writings would be the bulk of Elmwood’s early songs. Ruston moved from Cincinnati and finished his senior year in Belgium, Brussels before returning stateside to attend college. It was the summer of 2008 when he began playing with Nash Johnson and decided to expand on their fun. Once saxophonist Derek Haight and Drummer Donnie Marple replied to that fateful Craig’s List ad, no tryouts were necessary “we just knew it was the perfect fit right away”.

The formation of the four-piece band brought the completion needed to the songs Ruston started writing at age 14, “the songs sounded like what they were supposed to sound like all along”.

This is the point where the story ends for most college bands; they get together during school to play some shows, have some fun and always have those glory days to look back upon. That was not the case for Elmwood. Divine intervention might be the only way to explain how Ruston found the perfect band mates on the first try; judging from how quickly things came to fruition for Elmwood. It was a show at a small dive bar in Nashville where Steven Dahl first heard Elmwood. He immediately called his father Steve Dahl at Paradigm and insisted he come see this band. Taking his son’s advice, Steven came to Elmwood’s next show and was immediately impressed, booking them soon after. In and age when it takes most bands years (if ever) to get noticed, Elmwood was booked and recording tracks with former Jeff Beck and Meatloaf producer Alan Shacklock, and going on a national tour -- all in less than 6 months. Their whole world changed that quickly notes Ruston, “we were just playing in bars, and everything took off”.

The first task was to hit the road opening for Tea Leaf Green, a band who lives and dies on tour. But passion and desire are not the only things you need to make it through a tour. The members of Elmwood will be the first to tell you, “ It requires a lot of work and you need to be mentally sound”. This is why a good band needs to surround themselves with a core group of people who believe in your music. For Elmwood, that group consists of tour manager Steven Dahl, booking agent Jeffrey Hasson, along with band manager Shawn Radley (who also manges Howie Day). Being surrounded by a team “who [can] log countless hours for us”, was the last piece needed. The day-to-day operations for Elmwood remained simple, “…just living in a van and chasing the dream”, but their maturation, as a “road band” would come quickly. Elmwood would move into an opening spot with G Love & The Special Sauce after Tea Leaf Green; followed by headlining dates at various festivals. By the summer of 2009, Elmwood was opening for Blues Travelers and played the side stage for Dave Matthews Band; who share a sound similar to the crowd-pleasing style of Elmwood. The rest of the decade was booked solid for the guys as they reached new cities and audiences headlining with OAR before embarking on their own 50-day tour. While back in Nashville on a two-week December break, Elmwood didn’t even bother taking a breather after such a grueling schedule. “We spent the entire break just rehearsing non-stop”, according to Ruston. It is that kind of dedication and focus to growing musically that is evident on their second album. “ When I listen to our live tracks on the second album from touring with OAR, [we] just sound so much more developed then before”, notes Ruston. The addition of bassist Justin Smith is one reason for this, who has helped further the band.

If there is any evidence that Elmwood has the kind of infectious sound that any audience will get into, then look no further than the quality of bands that have brought them in to open. As for how Elmwood approaches each show, “it’s just a great cathartic release playing on stage that we try to convey to the audience”.

The new decade for Elmwood kicks off where they once started, opening for Tea Leaf Green. Only this time Elmwood will be more polished and expect to bring more energy to their shows, “we want to step it up to the next notch and play our hearts out on stage, and that’s all we can really do. That and try to remain thankful and respectful for how we got here”. How they got here is obvious to any one who has seen Ruston play his Takamine guitar on stage. Where it was once in great shape at MTSU, after non-stop touring the body’s finish is nearly gone, worn off by over use, giving it a look that puts Neil Young’s guitar from Conan O’Brien’s last show to shame.

As for this new tour with TLG, Ruston says, “you hope more people will be into your music and if not, well I will just go work on a horse farm…(pause) it’s true!” With all the success and the pace at which Elmwood has moved since their formation, for Ruston Kelly a career in the Equine services would be far better suited in less talented hands.

Elmwood opened for Tea Leaf Green at 20th Century Theatre on January 28, 2010. For more tour dates check the band site at . Elmwood will return to 20th Century Theatre to headline in April.


  • Christopher Lee 5 years ago

    I always love to hear about someone "living the dream", although it does make me a bit jealous. The fact that these guys are opening for bands that they were probably listening to-while drinking with their buddies in college-makes it even better. Ruston seems to be a very down to earth dude. My favorite line: "With all the success and the pace at which Elmwood has moved since their formation, for Ruston Kelly a career in the Equine services would be far better suited in less talented hands." I'll definitely have to check these guys out when they come to 20th Century in April.

  • Sherre Kelly 5 years ago

    Lance, what a great article, I didn't know you were such a talented journalist!
    Keep up the good work, and just so you know, it was great to see you again in
    Cinci last week! Take care!

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