For the “Our Voices” series, we’re talking to some women whose voices you can’t ignore, including those whose voices are integral to their way of life. Kelly Richey is one of those women. As an accomplished and acclaimed blues musician, poet/songwriter, guitar teacher, and life coach, Kelly has made her mark (and she isn’t finished yet) through the power of her voice – figuratively and literally.
On her musical roots
Kelly grew up in Kentucky with a church-going, musical family, with both her mother and her aunt involved with directing the music at church. It only made sense that she started taking piano lessons at a very young age, but she struggled from the outset due to her severe dyslexia. “I had the same trouble reading sheet music that I did reading books,” she explains. “All of that became intertwined. Music wasn’t fun, school wasn’t fun.”
Sheet music wasn’t an issue when she acquired a set of drums from a neighbor. “I set them up in my bedroom and I just banged on ‘em. My dad finally said ‘Kelly, I’ll buy you anything you want, if you get rid of the drums,’” she laughs.
She was given a guitar for Christmas when she was 15, right around the time she was starting to get turned on to rock’n’roll. “It was the first empowerment and identity that I ever felt,” she recalls. “It was my first real experience with music that was truly mine. I never looked back.”
On her love-hate relationship with writing
Kelly is a woman of many talents – among them, poetry. Her mom was an English teacher, so she knew what poetry was from a young age, but it was a personal experience that moved her to trying it herself.
“I lost my grandmother when I was eight years old, and that was the first time I had ever really felt pain,” she says. “She got cancer and was put into the hospital, and two weeks later, Dad met me on the way home from school and said ‘Your grandmother’s gone to be with Jesus.’ I was shattered.”
Not long after that, her family uprooted and moved, taking her away from all her friends, too. She didn’t feel like she had a place to talk about or express her grief, until the gray, rainy, Sunday afternoon when she wrote her first poem. “It was the one thing I could talk to, a piece of paper,” she says. After that, “I wrote buckets full of stuff. Milk crates full of stuff. And I stuck it under my bed.”
“It was the one thing I could talk to, a piece of paper.”
As she continued pursuing music and began songwriting in her twenties, her self-confidence was dealt a mortal blow when an artist she respected told her: “’Kelly, if you can’t read, you can’t write.’ I took that literally. That shut me down, and I quit writing.”
In her early thirties, after she’d begun teaching guitar lessons, she shared this story with one of her students, who came back to the next lesson with the gift of a brand new journal. “Basically, she gave me permission to write. And then when I filled that one up, she bought me another journal.”
Eventually, Kelly moved from her journals into writing groups and workshops, including one with American troubadour and singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier. “When I got to sit with her, I remember I just started crying. She looks and she goes, ‘I wanna help you,’” Kelly told me, imitating Mary’s gravely Tennessee accent to a tee. “She mentored me through email. She said to me: You can write.”
Finally, three years ago, Kelly’s partner at the time discovered the stockpile in the basement – “about six boxes of poetry and three milk crates of cassette tapes, seventy-four hours’ worth,” she recalls. Her partner offered to help her sort through all that material and find the gems, and that project evolved into Whisperings, Kelly’s first book of poetry.
These three women giving her permission to write after she was told she couldn’t, made all the difference to her, a message she is now paying forward in her work as a guitar teacher, a life coach, and soon, a writing teacher.
On breaking down barriers in the music biz
Kelly’s interest in blues music was fed by her love of blues-based rock like Led Zeppelin, but it was really cemented when she got the chance to not only meet but play on stage with blues legend Albert King in Nashville, Tennessee in the late 1980s.
Kelly didn’t really grasp who Albert King was to the genre when she asked if she could sit in with him for a jam session, at the bar where she was bartending and where he was playing that night. After a few other guitar players in his band vouched for her, they played together between his sold-out shows. When it was time for him to take the stage, Albert King sent her out there ahead of him, saying he’d join her for the second song. “He stood up and looked down at me and said, ‘Don’t you make me ashamed,’ and I said ‘No, Mr. King, I won’t.’”
On stage, in front of Nashville’s entire guitar-playing community, he gave her a lead in every song, barking out orders in a way that made her feel like a kid in church again – “I said a ninth chord! And I’m thinking, I know this is a ninth chord…Yes sir, Mr. King!” she laughs. “At that moment, I knew my place, and I had that whole show to sit with that.” After that experience, she got a stack of recommendations from another guitar player for blues artists she should get to know.
“I wasn’t just a woman in the blues…I was a rock guitar player, claiming to play blues, as a white woman.”
But while she embraced the genre, the genre was not so quick to embrace her when she started performing at the front of her own blues band in the 1990s. “I wasn’t just a woman in the blues…I was a rock guitar player, claiming to play blues, as a white woman.” At one festival she played in Indiana, she recalls that half the crowd completely loved her while the other half “sat there with their arms folded, glaring at me, hating the fact that I was even something that they had to deal with.”
Was that enough to discourage her? Hardly. In fact, her first guitar teacher had warned her of exactly that: “Girl’s don’t play guitar. They just don’t. If you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna have to be so much better than everyone else.” And she rose to meet that challenge. If she felt someone passed her over for a gig because she was a woman, she didn’t let them get away with it, to the point of “finding where they lived and knocking on their door with my guitar and amp saying I’m gonna play! I busted my way through.”
Her advice for other aspiring women musicians
“Anything that you can do to really know yourself and to surround yourself with people who help build your self-esteem, you’re gonna need it. Whether that means therapy, or new friends – there is no one recipe, but self-esteem is necessary for a healthy life, so figure it out.”
She points to artists’ tendency to wear their hearts on their sleeves. “It can be an awkward thing to learn how to let that out in a world that’s not always safe, not always kind. If we don’t have that infrastructure to manage that, you’ll turn to drugs and alcohol. You’ll turn to self-loathing, to questioning yourself, to blaming others or blaming yourself. There will be unrequited pain.”
“Master what you do, and honor it. Don’t think you can just have talent and that be enough.”
Her other major lesson comes from learning how to support herself in life as an artist. “Mastery is important,” she emphasizes. “Master what you do, and honor it. Don’t think you can just have talent and that be enough. Find what it is that you’re truly good at and really embrace it.”
I knew right away when I met Kelly at the Conscious Feminine Leadership Academy that she was a woman I wanted to know more about, and hearing her story in her own words was not only a privilege, but an inspiration. (And while these photos show her at her most badass, trust me when I say she’s got a smile that will wipe out any blue feelings you might have.)