Meet the first artist John Prine has signed to his label in 15 years
In the past, Kelsey Waldon has written songs informed by aspects of her life, but she had never fully embraced telling her own story on record.
“There might have been a lot of questions like, ‘Who is Kelsey Waldon?’” said the Kentucky-born, Nashville-based country musician, reached for a mid-October phone interview on the road in Dearborn, Michigan. “I knew I hadn’t made that record yet, one that felt definitive, like, ‘OK, here’s where we start. Here’s where we begin.’”
Waldon does just that with “Kentucky, 1988,” a song that falls early on the singer’s new full-length, White Noise/White Lines (Oh Boy Records), and takes listeners back to her childhood trailer, set amid a dove-hunting field in the tiny holler of Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky. Verses bounce between bucolic, sun-kissed scenes where the youngster searches for arrowheads in the dirt along the banks of the Ohio River and more pained turns reflecting on the aftermath of her parent’s divorce. “Now daddy’s talkin’ to us with bloodshot eyes again,” sings Waldon, whose parents split up when she was 13. “He’s sayin’ things he don’t mean to say.” Rather than shy from these uglier moments, Waldon leans into them, embracing the myriad ups and downs that have combined to shape her as a person. “This is my DNA,” she sings in the chorus.
Though Waldon wasn’t raised in a musical home — her mom worked as a clerk for the district court and her dad existed as a sort of jack of all trades, logging time as everything from a farmer to a barbecue pit master and owner of a hunting lodge — the singer can trace the form through her family tree. “My great grandparents and my granny — everyone on my mom’s side of the family — they all played music, and my granny has actually written songs, though no one has ever cut them,” Waldon said. “She just writes as a hobby, as a way to get by, for therapy. … So it skipped a few generations, but it definitely came down that side of the family.”
As a child, Waldon studied piano with the music director from her small country church, picking up guitar around age 12, after songwriting really took hold. At age 19, she moved to Nashville for the first time, but, being too young to play in bars and stuck living paycheck to paycheck in a minimum wage job, she soon became overwhelmed, returning home to Western Kentucky. A few years later, Waldon moved back to Nashville after being accepted into the prestigious songwriting program at Belmont University.
The return trek proved more successful for Waldon. By 2016 she debuted onstage on the Grand Ole Opry at Ryman Auditorium, performing with country legend Connie Smith standing in the wings, and for this new record she landed a deal with John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, the acclaimed singer and songwriter's first label signing in 15 years.
While much of White Noise is deeply personal, tracing aspects of Waldon's ongoing journey, other songs, such as “Sunday's Children,” are informed by Waldon’s experiences but touch on larger, societal issues. Growing up in the Christian church, Waldon said the certainty with which some expressed their beliefs bordered on self-righteous. “And, in that, we kind of create these imaginary lines where we feel like maybe we’re better than people who are different from us,” she said, pointing to the number of gay friends she had in adolescence who refused to come out due to fears of rejection or worse stoked by many of the same people who shared pews with the singer each Sunday.
The musician is careful to note that the song is not an attack on the church or Christianity, but rather a celebration that “in the end we all want to be accepted, embraced … and loved,” as she explained. “We all want the same things/We all dream the same dreams,” Waldon sings on the smoky roadhouse number, built on loping bass and simmering, Southern-fried guitar. “Don’t have to be just like you/To understand universal truth.”
“Some people may have taken it a little too literal because maybe they felt seen, and that’s fine, too,” Waldon said of the critics who have attempted to read deeper into the song’s message, interpreting it as slanted against religion. “You can always skip a track.”