Multi-instrumentalist and singer Kelley Breiding has developed a deep relationship and understanding with the old-time music of northwestern North Carolina and the communities that surround those musical traditions. Kelley is particularly noted for her clawhammer banjo playing in the famed Surry County Round Peak style and her strong singing, and she showcases these skills in several regional bands.
Kelley grew up in the Charlotte area and later went to Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC. During summer breaks, Kelley worked as a raft guide in the Nantahala National Forest, where she met several guitar players picking and singing bluegrass songs.
“After that ﬁrst summer, the guitar players didn’t come back, so I decided to learn to play guitar,” Kelley recalls. She spent the next couple years learning to play guitar and attending local and regional music events, like bluegrass festivals and ﬁddlers conventions.
“I went to the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention, and that was when I really got locked into old-time music,” Kelley says. When she returned to college, a friend gave Kelley a banjo, and she started learning to play. She soon was making regular trips to Surry County to play music and visit with Nick and Chester McMillian, who she met at the ﬁddlers convention. Kelley moved to Mount Airy around 2000, and she and the McMillians restarted the BackStep band, which had been on hiatus for several years. Kelley focused on the fretless clawhammer banjo styles of the area, eventually taking first place in as many as seven local banjo contests in a single summer.
“Through my years of living in Mount Airy, I made deeper connections to the community, and I started to hear the cadence of the people in the music of the area,” Kelley says. “It helped me expand my understanding of the music across the region.” Kelley toured and performed for 12 years with BackStep, traveling around the country giving concerts, playing for dances, competing at ﬁddlers conventions, and presenting workshops on RoundPeak style music. In 2004, Kelley started her band, Kelley and the Cowboys, featuring a repertoire of early and classic country music.
“The band gives me a chance to express myself as a vocalist in different ways than the old-time bands,” she says. Around 2014, Kelley moved to Ashe County, where she lives today. In addition to her role in Kelley and the Cowboys, Kelley plays banjo with Crooked Road Ramblers, and she plays guitar and banjo with Spencer Branch. Kelley has performed with many notable groups and artists, including Jimmy C. Newman, Donna the Buffalo, Dr. Ralph Stanley, and Deacon John. Kelley has won many ribbons for her clawhammer banjo playing, and she also plays guitar, bass, and ﬁddle. Kelley has taught workshops and led classes at festivals and events across the region and country.
Kelley is available for performances with Kelley and the Cowboys, Spencer Branch, and Crooked Road Ramblers. She is also available for teaching, demonstrations, educational programs, school programs, private lessons, and workshops.