By Kevin Broughton
Music, a sense of place, and family have been Kelsey Waldon’s passions as long as she can remember. She took piano lessons as a 10-year-old, then switched to guitar a couple of years later. Her mom soon bought her a 10-track recorder to encourage her creativity, and by 19 she’d moved from her Western Kentucky home to Nashville for the first time. She worked as a bartender while polishing her songwriting chops and taking what gigs she could find. A brief interregnum back home in Ballard County – and community college – followed, then it was back to Music City’s Belmont University for serious study and renewed focus on her craft.
She cultivated a loyal following through frequent touring across the U.S. and two critically acclaimed albums; the most recent of which made it onto NPR’s Fresh Air host Ken Tucker’s “Top10 Favorite Albums of 2016” while the album’s lead single, “All By Myself,” was featured on NPR’s list of “Top 100 Songs of 2016.”
On her new album, White Noise, White Lines, Waldon captures the rugged country sound of her touring band without sacrificing the intimacy of her songwriting. Because of that approach, the record feels immediate and intimate, somewhere between a concert and a conversation. Co-produced by Waldon and Dan Knobler, the collection opens with a confident anthem, “Anyhow,” which finds the artist forging ahead after some frustrating setbacks.
“The past three years since we put a record out, we’ve seen some of the biggest ups and downs, like exciting things happening, and not-so-exciting things happening. We kept going and it’s all about that process,” she says. “And the title alludes to things going on around us, in the world and in our environment. I do think there is a lot of white noise. That title describes where I am.”
The nine songs – and two perfectly placed interludes – on White Noise, White Lines are a distillation of the bluegrass-infused country emblematic of the region John Prine immortalized when he sang of the Green River and Mr. Peabody’s coal train. More on how that legend and Waldon – in Hollywood-script fashion – intersected in a moment.
“Run Away” is a traditional country weeper about falling for someone whose life is a wreck. Waldon wrote “Very Old Barton” about binge drinking alone, with the hopeful message of getting through the highs and lows of life. But the bold centerpiece of the album comes in a pair of songs. Waldon offers an impassioned protest song with “Lived and Let Go.” She explains, “A lot of times, I tend to write because I have to make senseof the world around me.” Its companion cut (mainly because they’re both either fast waltzes or in 6/8 time – the artist and I weren’t quite sure when chatting before the tape rolled on the interview), “Black Patch,” oozes authenticity.
White Noise, White Lines is one of the best country albums of the year, and Miss Waldon should be prepared to hear her name called when Americana award season rolls around.
We chatted briefly about Prine, Muhlenberg County, tobacco wars and seasickness.
You’re the first artist signed to Oh Boy Records in a long time. How is it you came to the attention of John Prine, and how would you describe your personal and artistic relationship?
Yeah, that’s right. I’m the first one signed in almost 15 years, and I think that shows how careful they’ve been; I don’t think they do anything unless they want to. And neither do I. But I actually didn’t meet John until last year. I would see him around town in Nashville a lot; I’d freak out when I’d see him at Melrose Billiards and some other places like Arnold’s Meat and Three.
When my last record came out in 2016, that’s when everybody at Oh Boy apparently took notice of me, and when John and his wife, Fiona, heard my music. Later, I performed at a John Prine Tribute show and met Fiona and she said, “John and I are big fans,” and I was just in disbelief.
Yeah! I was like, First off, you know who I am, and John Prine knows who I am! It was just so cool to meet her there. And she’s become a champion of mine, and a great friend. But 2018 – on the Cayamo Cruise – was the first time I met John, and I got to sing “Paradise” with him. Later in the year, when he and I played some shows together, that was when he was able to hear some of my original music. That was when we were really able to bond, and he started asking about my upcoming album.
I can’t imagine how cool it was to have him call you out on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry and announce you’d signed with the label.
Yeah. It’s funny, but a lot of people think that’s when it happened. They actually think that was the moment he decided! (Laughs)
Like it was a reality show or something.
I know! And I’ll tell you something else, and it’s probably TMI: The first time I sang with him on the cruise, I was so nervous. I had actually been throwing up! I’d gotten seasick and felt awful. And they called me and said, “Miss Waldon, John Prine would like you to sing ‘Paradise’ with him at his three o’clock show [in an hour], can you do that?” And I was so sick, but I said, “You bet I’ll be there!” So I rolled out of the bed and made it work.
You left Kentucky for Nashville at 19, came back home for a while & went to community college, then back to Nashville where you earned a diploma at Belmont University. What did you study?
I actually got a degree in songwriting, as strange as that sounds. I had never really planned on being that girl who applies for scholarships and things like that. It’s a pretty exclusive program. Berkley offers a similar program, and I read that Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch did that one. It’s a lot of music theory classes that you have to take. I took a “History of Country Music” class, which was really cool. But it taught me a lot about discipline; it was really cool, because I’d never had anyone push me out of my comfort zone before. It made me learn that there’s inspiration everywhere. And it was good to learn that at a young age, I guess.
You and Dan Knobler co-produced this album. Had you ever been on the other side of the glass before? What did you learn from the experience?
All the records I’ve done have been my vision, but all of the experiences are a little bit different. This time I used my live touring band. You know, we’d been out on the road touring pretty seriously for about three years before going into the studio. So we had practiced [these songs], and it just seemed completely natural. The thing was my vision, and Dan was the guiding light in helping me navigate through the process. I asked him if he was okay giving me a production credit and he agreed. I’ve always had a strong say in all my records, so it seemed the natural thing to do.
And the band, these are folks you’ve been touring and playing with for a while?
Yes! Brett Resnick, my steel player, he’s played on all three of my records.
Solid player, by the way.
He’s amazing, and one of my first friends when I moved to Nashville. But yeah, these are the guys who’ve been touring with me since 2016. And a couple of them, even a few years before that.
And the recording process: How much of it did y’all do live?
Pretty much all of it. We didn’t use any technology unless we had to. There were a few overdubs as far as layering some of the guitars, but the rhythm section – the “meat and taters” of it – was all done live right there. But if one or two of the vocals live with the band weren’t perfect, they were perfectly imperfect. I just wanted to keep the energy going. I didn’t do anything unless it felt right. None of us did.
I brought in the songs, and some of them we already had together and where we didn’t, we just played until we got there.
You come from a community called Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky. Looking at the map, it’s one of those spots in the middle of the country where I bet you could visit four or five other states on half a tank of gas. Would you say there’s a confluence of cultures in your part of the country?
Well, it’s a unique part of Kentucky, for sure. Growing up there in the river bottoms you see lots of different things and people. I had friends in Tennessee, because you’re right there on the state line, and you’re right across the river from Illinois. The Ohio River was in our back yard; I grew up in flood country. Backwater is part of life when you’re at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio.
But yeah, there’s a heavy blues influence, and obviously bluegrass was a big part of my life growing up. They say you’ve got bluegrass coming down the Ohio, and the blues coming up from Memphis and Mississippi. But there’s a feel, you know? There are cypress trees all around…I grew up in the sloughs, the Kentucky swamps. My dad owns a hunting lodge down there, and when he’s not farming the land, he floods it out for waterfowl hunting. I always tell anyone who hasn’t been there how unique and beautiful it is in its own right.
Speaking of your neck of the woods, there was a running, turn-of-the century shooting war over tobacco prices, and the Duke family’s monopoly, for about five years. I didn’t know about it until I heard your song “Black Patch,” so I had to look it up.
Oh, really? That’s great! Pretty crazy imagery, right?
It’s awesome! Did you grow up with stories passed down? The Hatfield/McCoy thing in Eastern Kentucky/ West Virginia gets all the press and romance, but this was some serious stuff.
Yeah, you know I think the region and Kentucky in general has so much history. And growing up, yes, I did hear the stories. My great-grandmother wrote so much stuff down, and kept everything. And my brother-in-law and little sister farm tobacco and dark-fire it. It’s a huge part of fall every year. That’s the tobacco used in snuff. But I actually learned about the Black Patch war from taking a History of Kentucky class in community college, and still have the textbook. But reading about it, I was like, “Holy sh*t!” The imagery was just so romantic, and I thought, “This sounds like a song.” Just the name “Black Patch” is so killer.
It’s also a way, I think, for me to just speak up for local farmers; people getting the thumb of the government pressed down on them. It was a way for me to share their story.
I want to piece together a timeline, because this just seems so – if not perfect – at least poetic. In the spring, Mr. Prine formally announced you were on the Oh Boy label. There’s an aptly-named “Interlude” on the record where you play a voice mail from your Dad where he says, “Hey, Babe. I’m down here in Muhlenberg County, looking for turkeys.” It’s freaking precious. Did you know there was a chance you’d be on John Prine’s label when you played that back for the first time?
No! Not at all!
(Laughs) I do promise! We tracked this record in late 2017; it took a while to get this one out. The whole year of 2018 I was trying to find the right home for it. I didn’t want to independently release something again, and knew it was time to do something else. I wanted to elevate things a little bit. And it’s hard, you know? It’s hard to find people who understand what you do.
That’s kind of going off on a tangent a little bit, but no. I save all my mom’s and dad’s voice mails. I just love them so much. My dad leaves the really colorful ones. And my granny does too. But I’d been wanting to do the “interlude” thing for a long time, and with this particular record I wanted it to feel very human and untainted. I also didn’t want to overdo the interludes, and that one had a perfect sentiment, I think. My dad and I had turkey hunted together in Muhlenberg County, and just had a perfect weekend.
But I swear, I had no idea. It just worked out that way.
Grab White Noise, White Lines (on Oh Boy Records) wherever you get your music. Oh, and she’s touring, too. Go see a show.