Kelly grew up in Emporia, KS. His parents were music teachers, so the house was always full of music and instruments of all kinds. As a kid he played piano, cello, and trombone and by age 13, had gravitated toward the bass. “I’ve just always been listening to bass,” Kelly recalls, “I didn’t even remember the words to songs.” He identified with the role of the bass in music - out of the spotlight yet essential and powerful. “Even in sports as a kid, I liked those positions where I was involved but still keeping an eye on everything that’s going on - like the goalie or the catcher."
Kelly entered Kansas State in 2002, studied bass under his mentor, Dr. Wayne Goins, while earning his Bachelor’s Degree in Music Theory & Composition. He also began his long love affair with the 8-string guitar, which he has used as a vehicle for compositional ideas and better facility and understanding on the bass (“like a batter in the on-deck circle using a weighted bat”).
For two years after college, Kelly earned a modest living playing local gigs around Manhattan on bass and 8-string, while also teaching lessons. But he saw an opportunity to advance his career musically and professionally when he discovered bassist and educator Rodney Jordan. Kelly immediately wanted to study with him at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where Professor Jordan was and remains the bass teacher. Like Kelly, Rodney had started on cello, played upright and electric bass, and pursued fluency in both the jazz and classical worlds.
Kelly was accepted to the graduate program at Florida State in 2009 and thus began a time of intense growth for his technique and musicianship. He didn’t play much publicly, instead devoting focused time with Professor Jordan and alone in the practice room. “People can be confident about their talent, but when someone is confident because of the amount of time they've put in, it comes through and that’s where I was trying to get to.” His time at Florida State culminated in a trio recording called Roux Steady, for which Kelly penned original compositions and played 8-string guitar. The project doubled as an independent study thesis for his master’s degree and his first album as a leader.
In 2011, Kelly got his first professional experience on a national level with touring productions of My Fair Lady by New York-based Big League Productions. By this time, he had met his future wife, Florence, who got accepted to graduate school in Jacksonville. The two moved there in 2012 and Kelly did two more tours with productions of Hello Dolly and A Christmas Story. His time there also yielded another album as a leader, an electric jazz quartet album entitled A Periapsis Suite. Meanwhile, it became clear that Atlanta would be a more musically exciting and economically sustainable scene than he had ever been part of. As fate would have it, Florence was offered a job there and it became home in 2014.
Kelly has since established himself in Atlanta as both a player and a teacher, and his career now reflects the wide variety of musical experiences he has valued since childhood. He spent a year as the touring bassist for roots/rock sensation Larkin Poe, with whom he performed throughout the U.S. and Europe, including an appearance at the 2016 Glastonbury Festival. His list of live and recording credits has expanded to include Ansley Stewart, Sam Burchfield, Orquesta Macuba, Karla Harris, and The Georgia Players Guild. Kelly is also a contractor and first-call bassist for the Emerald Empire Band, winner of the Wedding Wire’s “Couples’ Choice” Award and The Knot’s “Best Of” Award, both three years running. He continues to compose on the 8-string guitar and upright bass with plans to make another record in the coming year.