When Kelley's duo The Boxhounds were nominated for best polka album in December, the 40-year-old musician was in the hospital recovering from colon cancer surgery - a trying end to a trying six months in which both he and his wife, cable TV's Great American Country personality Nan Kelley, were diagnosed and treated for cancer.
"It's been such a hard year," he said recently. "Nan had kind of finished her thing and then we went straight into this. I didn't have a chance to breathe. I didn't have a chance to feel anything."
Today, their cancer is in remission and they are working again. As they spoke in the living room of their Nashville home, they joked about their ordeal the way other couples might joke about a bad vacation.
"When we go to the oncologist, he says 'Which one are we seeing today - you or you," laughed Nan, who'd just appeared on air for the first time since her treatment without a wig covering her short dark hair.
Nan, 43, was the first to learn she had the disease after finding a knot in her neck last spring.
"I had no other problems," she says. "I was certain it was a goiter (enlarged thyroid)."
But it turned out to be Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system that is very treatable if caught early, as hers was.
"They said 'We know how to beat this one. The chemotherapy has been in place since the '70s. We know how to beat it. You just have to get through it,"' she said.
She stayed on the air as long as she could during her treatment and told GAC viewers what was happening to her: "I shared it with the audience because I thought it could help other people going through it, but I ended up getting the most out of it. I can't count the e-mails and cards that came for me."
She returned to work full-time in September, but while her journey was ending her husband's was beginning.
Doctors found three polyps in Charlie's colon during a precautionary colonoscopy in November. One was malignant with highly active cancer cells and had to come out.
"I was stunned because we had just been through this," Charlie recalled. "You're stunned and upset, but also numb."
Nan was at work when she got word: "I'm standing there in a wig, still a mess from my ordeal ... It just didn't seem real."
The surgery was Dec. 1 - two days before the Grammy nominations were announced.
The Boxhounds are nominated for "Speechless," an album that bumps the boundaries of polka music. For one, it's all instrumental. It also incorporates nontraditional instruments like electric guitar and features a woman, Charlie's duo partner LynnMarie Rink, in a male-dominated genre.
Rink, who plays accordion to Charlie's guitar, was with him when he got word of the nomination.
"I shook him - 'Charlie, we got it, we got it.' Nothing. He was out. I said 'What do I do now?' I waited 30 seconds and tried again and he woke up. I said 'We got it,' and he said 'Got what?'
"He was very happy and had a huge smile on his face. I had brought in a hat with a Grammy on it. We took a photo and celebrated a little bit, then he went back to bed."
The news couldn't come at a better time.
"To be in the hospital and coming out of that and to know you're one of the top five in your genre, what a shot in the arm," Rink said. "Sometimes you go through a lull after a life-changing thing. This kind of forced him to push and keep that positive outlook."
But after he left the hospital, everything hit Charlie at once. He was emotional about the cancer and the nomination. He felt like he'd been given a second chance.
He needed to do something, he thought, and began organizing a project to raise money for the Colon Cancer Alliance and the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences' fund for needy musicians. He's working now to get other recording artists involved and hopes to have the first fundraiser this spring in Nashville.
"People probably think of colon cancer as an older person's cancer, but it can happen to anybody. I thought maybe if they see somebody young speaking out, maybe they'll listen. I can't tell you how important it is to me to do this and make it as big as I can make it," he said.
As for the Feb. 8 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Charlie plans to be in the audience - this time wide awake.
By John Gerome