Ladybugs are a sign of good luck. Chuck Harmony and Claude Kelly know that now.
But four years ago, the insects were a signal that these two definitely needed to find another place to sleep in Nashville. Harmony and Kelly are certified hit-makers — songwriters, producers and musicians whose credits include Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” and Bruno Mars’ “Grenade.” The collaborators were getting tired of working out of Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta, and decided to pay Nashville a visit to see if it could become their new base. They flew to Music City straight from the Grammys and arrived at their Airbnb in East Nashville at 2 a.m. That’s where the bugs come in. “They were falling off the ceiling and crawling on the walls,” Harmony says. “We were like, 'Oh my God, what is this country mess that we have gotten ourselves into?’ ” It was fate, it turns out. Harmony and Kelly retreated down Interstate 65 to Franklin, where “both of us fell in love with the town and what it had to offer,” Kelly says.
“And we pretty much never left.” Since then, Franklin has become home for both musicians and the base of operations for their production company, Weirdo Workshop. It’s also been the backdrop as Harmony and Kelly have started releasing their own music as the duo Louis York. Named after their respective hometowns — East St. Louis and New York City — the pair released their debut album, “American Griots,” in October. At first blush, it’s simply a blast to listen to, with an infectious undercurrent of ‘80s R&B and pop (Kelly, in fact, is a dead ringer for Phil Collins on standout track “All in My Feelings”).
But it’s also meticulously crafted, with an unshakable sense of purpose. “Intention” is a word that keeps coming up when Harmony and Kelly talk about their work. They put a lot of thought into the album title, as well. The term “Griot,” as they recently learned, refers to "West African poets, songwriters and musicians and storytellers,” Harmony says. “(They) went from village to village telling the oral history, oral tradition of their villages and culture.” Kelly said: “It's also a call to action for our peers, to really embrace the legacy and the importance of what it means to be a musician.” In that spirit, Louis York is taking its music to new, unlikely places. On Friday, the duo make its official debut on the Grand Ole Opry. Just one week later, music it’s composed will be heard in the Nashville Ballet’s “Attitude: Other Voices” at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Polk Theater. “Since we moved to Nashville, the Opry has been on our vision board,” Harmony says. “And to be quite honest, it was very hard to see how two black men whose music is considered, for the lack of a better word, 'R&B' were going to make it to the Opry stage.”
The connection came through their friend, Jimmie Allen. The country star appears on the “American Griots” track “Teach Me a Song,” and he brought the duo to perform it with him on the Opry last year. Within days, the Opry invited Louis York to come back on its own. "Our intention with our musical gifts is to spread them as wide as possible,” Harmony says “... As good as Claude's pen is for Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, it's that great for ballet, theater, movie scores and all of that. We're exploring all of it.” That includes the new vocal trio The Shindellas, who’ve relocated to Nashville from various cities to work with Harmony and Kelly. “They're a Nashville born-and-bred band, which I think is important,” Kelly says. “We want to put something interesting on the map from this place that we've moved to that we love.”