By Bryson Keltner
In the outskirts of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, her house is surrounded by farmland. Her carport is painted red. A cement Tennessee Volunteer dog sits by the front door–it weighs more than her. That’s Ruth Kelly’s house.
“Well, come in, Honey,” she says. “Just make yourself at home.”
Her white hair bobs as she shuffles to her husband’s recliner in the living room. The heat is blazing through a fake fireplace. It’s hot inside. ESPN is on so loud that it’s difficult to hear her say anything. She feels around for the T.V. remote because she can’t see it on the shelf. She stares at the remote in search of the volume buttons.
“It ain’t easy,” she says. Her eyes aren’t what they once were. She just turns the television off completely.
She apologizes for not being ready earlier.
“You had to give me enough time to get ready. It takes a while these days. I gotta put on my glasses. Gotta put in my hearing aids. Gotta put on my bra. Don’t really need that last one anymore, but it’s a ritual.”
The ritual is complete and she is prepared.
“So, you want my full story?” she asks. “Lord, you ain’t askin’ for much,” she begins.
Ruth Kelly was born Jan. 25, 1930. At 87, she has two children, five grandchildren, six great grandchildren and four great great grandchildren. She says she accomplished several feats in her life: she operated the WDXE radio station in Lawrenceburg for 11 years, she played competitive basketball and softball until she was 45, she can land a plane, and she almost got her pilot license. She worked at a factory for 21 years while helping manage her family farm. She also received her black belt at 65 when she split a wooden plank in half with her bare hands.
Among everything she’s done, she feels her largest accomplishment is her singing. Ruth and her late husband, Son Kelly, started a southern gospel singing group in 1959: The Kellys. Although Ruth stopped singing with the group years ago, The Kellys group still sings almost every weekend of the year.
“Let’s start at the beginning, Honey,” Ruth says.
Her parents believed in going to church often. She recalls walking a mile from her Tennessee home in Lawrence County to revivals and Sunday services with her eight brothers and sisters. Most Sundays, the whole crew would attend church, come back for lunch and head to a cow pasture to play baseball.
She sang in the choir all of her life and taught Sunday School for most of it. Her roots were the cause of that. When she was young, there was a man who taught music around her church. He attempted to teach her how to sing and mark time. He would take her hand and motion it with the rhythm. When he’d turn it loose, Ruth would just let it fall down. Her father would scold her, but she didn’t mind.
Nevertheless, she learned.
Her brother played the pump organ, but Ruth worked the pedals for him. She doesn’t play any instruments herself though.
“Are you kidding? I can’t even play my CD’s over there,” she says.
They never sang anywhere except for church, but they enjoyed doing it as a family. Ruth says she tried to emulate that concept with her own family; that family began with Son.
She was almost three years older than him.
“The first time I saw him at school, I knew he was going to be mine. I ran him around the flagpole and kissed him. I was nine or ten, but I was bound and determined to have him.”
Ruth recalls her dating years as mostly spending time with Son on his family farm, a 500-acre operation. She would help him milk cows or ride with him on a tractor, but they went out to the movies and to concerts at their school as well.
She would walk around the square in Lawrenceburg. It was more of a circle, with a red brick courthouse in the center and clothing shops around the outside. While Son would put coins in a parking meter, Ruth strolled around him in short skirts and flirt.
“I thought he was the grandest person to ever live and I thought that when he died,” she said.
They ran off and got married in 1950. She was 19. He was 17.
“He always used to say, ‘She made me marry her. She wouldn’t leave me alone and let me see anybody else,’” Ruth says. “He was right.”
They lived three years with Son’s mother. In 1952, Ruth gave birth to her first son: Gary.
“When I was little, all I did was farm and sing,” Gary says as he sits in his mother’s living room. He faces pictures on the wall and looks up at a collection of baskets that hang overhead. He remembers farming 500 acres as far back as he can remember, and said that instead of staying with a babysitter, his parents would make him work from daylight until dark.
“They made me work before I could even walk,” he says.
He says one memory that he can’t seem to forget about his mother involves his little brother, Jon. They were playing on the back porch next to a hand-crank washing machine. A young Jon decided to stick his hand through the ringer, which ran Jon’s arm through the machine. John screamed as he lost some skin and a little blood while Ruth had to come out and rescue him. She scolded him. Despite his brother’s small accident, Gary couldn’t stop laughing about his mother’s difficulty getting his brother’s arm out of a washing machine.
Gary rubs the corner of his eye under his glasses when he begins to talk about his mother.
“She’s the most wonderful person in the world,” he says. “When we would mess up, Daddy would ground us. Mama would sneak us out.”
“I try to be as good of a person as she is,” he says. “She’s always tried to do the right thing. I try to be honest, be sincere and be loving. When I’m about to say something bad about somebody, I think of Mama. I’ve never heard her say nothing bad about nobody. She told me if I never had anything good about to say about somebody, keep your mouth shut. I try to live up to that.”
After coming in from the farm, the family would eat dinner and sing a few songs around a piano. But when the family sold most of the farm to pay Son’s father’s medical bills after his death, they begin to sing more. Doing so gave rise to The Kellys.
The family began going to different homes and singing hymns. Ruth sang the tenor part. Next to her, Son sang bass. Son’s brother, Jim, would stand in the center and sing the lead part. Minnie Paul, Jim’s wife, sang alto. Son’s sister, Tammy, joined in with the tambourine, and Son’s mother played the piano. Gary began playing drums when he got a little older. However, the group was not complete. Ruth had Jon, her second son, in 1960.
As his family went around singing to different homes–and eventually churches–Jon started playing a snare drum when he was five years old. He eventually added more drums, but when he turned 17, he took Jim’s place as the lead singer. He’s been singing that role and managing the group since then.
“We sang non-stop,” Jon says. “Mama and Daddy believed in practicing and rehearsing. It was great, and I’m glad they made us do it, but we’d sing three hours a night. Then, the band would practice three hours a night on a different night. We were give-out,” he says, meaning they were exhausted.
Jon says his mother has always been the loving force of the group.
“When I was doing things I shouldn’t do, there’s no way I could have talked to my daddy because he would have whooped me, but I could talk to Mama. She was always there for me. Today, I still think Dad could be mad at me, but I can’t stand for Mama to be mad.”
Jon says he does recall Ruth “whooping” him once. He was 11 or 12 and had done something outside that was “probably unruly.” Ruth spanked him to the point that he was bothered and couldn’t bear her disappointment.
He thought, “Well, I’ll go back outside and then I’ll come back in and make up a story about what I did and tell it to her to make her feel better about me.” So, he thought up a good tale. He came back in the house and told Ruth as she listened intently. “Then, she whooped me for lying,” Jon says. However, he is thankful for the discipline.
“She taught me to love on people and not to judge people by what they look like,” he says. “That you have to get to know a person before you can form what you think about them.”
“I could sit here for days and tell you singing stories,” Ruth says. She smiles as she talks about singing with The Oak Ridge Boys and JD Sumner and how she and Son bought their first tour bus, but then, she begins to talk about Son specifically. She goes and sees him about once per month.
He’s at a cemetery in Loretta, just a few miles from where he grew up. The dirt is still fresh. He only died last year after having cancer, heart problems, and difficulty breathing.
Ruth looks down at Son’s headstone, which has her name on it too. It’s a slab with a farm scene and cows on one side. She also looks at the dirt on the grave. It is mud from recent rain. An animal has walked through it–probably a dog or a deer.
She doesn’t say anything. Cold sprinkles of rain begin to fall as she sheds a tear. She gets back in her car.
“If anyone would have told me it would be this hard, I wouldn’t have believed them,” she says. “Death is so final. It just hits you in the face. I sure do miss him.”
She sits in the recliner. His recliner. She says she couldn’t bring herself to sit there for a while, but now she does it to feel close him. She sits there and watches television among her photos of family and singing adventures. Nearby there is a painted wooden board that her niece gave her after Son’s funeral. It reads, “Since someone we love is in Heaven, there’s a little piece of Heaven here at home.” She sits and she thinks.
“After Son died, I’d sit here and bawl,” she says. “When I’d get up, I’d cry some more. In the mornings, I don’t want to get up sometimes, but Son would want me to get up.”
Judy Kelly now sits on Ruth’s couch as Ruth talks to some company in another room. Judy is Gary’s wife, but she is also one of Ruth’s best friends.
Judy and Gary dated through high school. During one of The Kellys’ many rehersals, the two of them ran off and got married. It was Ruth’s birthday.
After arriving back at Son and Ruth’s home, Gary said, “Mama, I got you a birthday present.”
Questioning, Ruth asked, “What?”
With a large smile, Gary said, “Judy. We got married today.”
Ruth didn’t believe it at first, but she was ecstatic to gain a daughter-in-law on her birthday.
“I don’t know how to describe Ruth,” Judy says. “Well, she’s a fun person to be around to say the least.”
Judy is a housekeeper, and once per week or so, Ruth joins her to clean. Ruth will do small jobs like vacuuming, dusting and making beds.
“I think it’s good for her to be active and get out of the house, even if she doesn’t do anything and she just goes with me,” Judy says. “I think it’s good that she’s not sitting here by herself.”
Although her sons and other family members check on her often throughout the day, Ruth has had to grow accustomed to living alone.
“I think she’s taken it pretty hard,” Judy says. “I think she’s really grieving more than anybody realizes. She talks to me a lot about it because she goes with me a lot. She’s really sad about it.”
Now Ruth sits in a bright orange Tennessee shirt on her living room couch, where those closest to her have shared memories about her. There’s a March rain drizzling, but it’s warm in the Kelly house. Ruth reflects on her life, and mostly the life with her husband.
Ruth still avidly goes to church, but she doesn’t sing anymore. She doesn’t wear her wedding ring anymore because of her arthritis. She doesn’t do extreme things anymore like karate or softball. Rather, she thinks about her faith and about her love story.
“I wish I could have done more for my family financially,” she says. “It was hard sometimes, but God looked after us. But besides that, I don’t really have any regrets though, Honey.
“I’ve had a good life and I’ve tried my best. I may not have done things as well as other people, but I did them and I did my best. That’s all you can really do.”
A tear falls behind her thick glasses.
“Talking about my life like this has really made me think about some things I’ve never really talked about, Honey,” she says. “I think I feel a little better.”
She stares at a photo of the original members of The Kellys and wipes the tear away.