Marrying the hardscrabble poetry of alt-country troubadours with the moodiness of alternative singer/songwriters, Ruston Kelly cut a unique figure in Nashville at the tail end of the 2010s. Kelly originally earned his reputation as a songwriter, penning "Nashville Without You" for Tim McGraw in 2013. As a performer, he moved toward the fringes of mainstream country, a shift notable on his 2017 debut EP, Halloween, and its 2018 full-length follow-up, Dying Star. Kelly took to calling his blend of old-fashioned songcraft, moody Americana, and alt-rock attitude "dirt emo" — he called a 2019 covers EP this very name — but the elastic, impressionistic hybrid reached its fruition on his second full-length album, 2020's Shape & Destroy.
Born in Georgetown, South Carolina, Ruston Kelly spent much of his childhood moving around the country. He found solace in figure skating and music. By the time he was a teenager, he was writing songs in earnest; some of these tunes feature on the 2013 EP The Bootleg Sessions. Around that time, he moved to Nashville and signed a publishing deal with BMG Nashville, beginning to place songs on albums by established musicians, starting with Tim McGraw's 2013 version of "Nashville Without You." Kelly next collaborated with Josh Abbott on the latter's "Tuesday Night;" the Texas singer also recorded Kelly's "Front Row Seat" in 2015. By that point, Kelly's performing career was gaining momentum. Signing with Razor & Tie's Washington Square Music, Kelly released his debut EP, Halloween, in 2017. Produced by Mike Mogis, who previously worked with Jenny Lewis and Bright Eyes, the EP earned strong reviews and attention on streaming services, and Kelly's momentum increased when "Asshole" started to make viral waves in April 2018. By that point, he signed with Rounder and finished his full-length debut, Dying Star, a record co-produced by Jarrad Kritzstein and recorded at El Paso's Sonic Ranch. Dying Star appeared in September 2018.