A conversation with Kelsey Waldon
Kelsey Waldon’s 2019 album White Noise / White Lines landed her a nomination for Emerging Act of the Year at the Americana Honors & Awards and earned her a place on Pandora’s 2021 list of Country Artists to Watch. If you’ve listened to the album, that’s no surprise: Waldon pays special attention to detail and storytelling, but she refuses to be held too long in the past. She isn’t afraid to speak to her roots in songs like “Kentucky 1988” while still looking towards the present and the future in “Sunday’s Children.” The album reflects an artist whose identity embraces change: “Nothing wrong with growing pains / Let it teach you everything.”
Though Waldon probably wasn’t thinking of a year like 2020 when she wrote those lyrics, “growing pains” works well to describe the turmoil, social movement, and collective grief that has defined the start of the decade. And with the release of her new EP, They’ll Never Keep Us Down, released last November from Oh Boy Records, Waldon digs her heels into the tension even further. The EP is a collection of covers that goes from crying out Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” with Adia Victoria and Kyshona Armstrong to the mournful resignation of John Prine’s “Sam Stone.” The songs together capture a feeling that Waldon expressed in her playlist for the OA’s Greatest Hits Music Issue: “This music truly comes from one unified place in the soul, and most of the time, a similar state of injustice, struggle, and poverty.”
Waldon spoke to the OA about the pandemic, her music, and her life. She was open about the pain of so much loss—including the death of dear friend and inspiration John Prine—yet she didn’t shy away from an optimism borne of coming back to songwriting while learning to work through the challenges of isolation.
The past year has created what feels like a hole in many people’s lives: losing income, losing family and friends, and the feeling of lost time in general. In her music, Kelsey Waldon has given us a glimpse into how to acknowledge that space while pushing, crying, and creating our way back into the story. “Struggle” almost feels like an understatement at this point, but it provides a glimpse at what we’re struggling for, in this year and the years to come. They’ll never keep us down.
So, are you home?
Kelsey Waldon: Yeah. I live in Ashland City, Tennessee, which is about thirty-five minutes or so outside of Nashville. It’s northwest, close to the Kentucky border. I’m actually about two hours away from where my mom lives, so that’s nice. I would have probably been back home in Kentucky by now, but my boyfriend has to work in town. He’s an engineer, so we make the best of both worlds.
You were in Nashville before that?
KW: I was, yeah, for about seven or eight years. I’d never lived anywhere else but home before I moved to Nashville. So that was definitely like a big city to me when I moved. It’s gotten a lot bigger. So much has changed. There’s a lot of people moving, new things being built.
And certain things have gone away. I mean, when I first moved to town, you could still do the old-time bluegrass jam at the Five Spot on Wednesdays. But Nashville, and of course Kentucky, they’ve both been so good to me. I certainly don’t feel removed from Kentucky at all, or from home.
Are you quarantining at home? Or are you visiting your mom or taking care of folks back home?
KW: My mom’s taking care of my granny, and they’re all still quarantining. I haven’t seen my family; it’s just been me and my boyfriend Justin here. Right before we left for overseas last February, I saw my family. But then, of course, our gigs got canceled–March 12th, I think it was. I haven’t seen them in many months at this point. Honestly, that’s been the hardest part. Back home, my little sister hasn’t even seen my mom, and they only live thirty minutes from each other. They’re taking it pretty seriously. It’s tough, but I don’t know what I would do if something happened to my granny; she’s eighty-four.
I know so many people are in the same boat that I’m in. And honestly, a lot of people are in a worse boat than I am. So many people are hurting right now. They’ve lost their jobs; my agent got laid off at Paradigm. A lot of things happened really quickly. The shock of it was a little bit to process, especially because we had a stacked year planned; we would have been on the road doing these dates with Brandy Clark and of course the Drive-By Truckers. I would have been playing two nights at the Louisville Palace, which was a bucket-list item for me. And I would’ve been playing them with John Prine. Last March was a shock, but I think that it was a great thing for me to learn to lose, in a way. But you know, that’s still a loss. I think when it got extremely real was when three people I knew died from this virus. John and I were very close, and that hurt the Oh Boy family quite a bit. I think that was when the silver lining got pulled away.
I’m really sorry for your loss. It was a big loss for all of us who love music, but I’m sorry specifically for you and your team; it’s a lot to carry.
Have you been writing new songs during this time, or have you been focused just on living?
KW: Well, I’m honestly a little bit of all those things. I have been writing and I have been finishing songs. But it took me a minute. At first when the gigs were canceled, that was when the first tour was canceled with the Truckers. We were like, “We’re going to have all this free time. It’s going to be great. I’m going to write.” And then it started to be like “Wait, now it’s April and May, now June and July.” I think I’m still processing that. It’s not just for me, but also my band and my tour manager. Let me just be real, everybody’s had to file for unemployment. Nobody is working, and nobody’s touring. All of us want each other to be healthy, so I feel like everyone’s had a good attitude, but it’s definitely been hard. I mean, my garden is immaculate this year—not to brag. I have to say now that I am over the initial shock and the depression. The more that I accepted what was going on—because you have to accept it—it’s just kind of like, “Okay, there’s nothing we can do.” I was doing good with that, but then, like I said, the personal deaths are super tough. My boyfriend’s uncle passed away from the virus the same day as John. That was a lot.
When I was finally able to write, I actually wrote a song about loss and grief, so that helped me.
We’re realizing a lot of things through this, and music is healing a lot of people. I’m excited for when my band and I can finally get back together. I’ve been working on tapes for new songs. Hopefully we can do some stuff with them and work out some demos, and I’m also thinking about an album.
What kind of feeling would it have? This would be your fourth album, right?
KW: Yeah, technically, but it’s my second one on Oh Boy. I always want everything to feel natural. A lot of the songs will be stuff that I’ve already had. I had about eight new songs and I’m trying to write more. I will say, the positive thing about me being home and being isolated is that’s when I work best, honestly. It’s when I can just be to myself.
Are there things that you’ve been listening to that have been helpful as you start thinking about the new project, or just in helping with the day to day? What are you listening to and turning to, as far as art and music?
KW: The latest Lucinda Williams record has been really inspiring, as she always is. You might know them, but some of my friends that are amazing songwriters—Aaron Ray and Michaela Anne and Caroline Spence—we’ve actually been doing a Zoom where we play a new song every week to each other, which has been incredibly inspiring. It really gets you out of your comfort zone, and we’re so isolated that you don’t really have a chance to play them in front of a live crowd and try it out. After I get off the phone with them, I just want to go. I just want to work; I want to write a song.
Do they give you feedback, and do you like kind of like, tweak the songs based on it?
KW: Yeah, but it’s not a critique. We made the rule that we’re not really in a critique zone. It’s more like, let’s lift each other up and empower each other. I think everybody has their own magic, and we need to believe in that magic, you know? And honestly, John’s records, crazy as it sounds, I think it helped me a lot when I was able to listen to them again. That inspired me.
Do you record at home?
KW: We have a studio in the basement here, so I’m able to do that. And I record voice memos and stuff, but that’s just a habit. I think I work better when I’m completely focused and able to write; I can’t write on the road, and we were going to be on the road all this year. So, on a positive note, this year has definitely given me time. It’s given me time to think, it’s given me a lot of time to wrap my head around things and write from an inspired place.
Who did you listen to while you were growing up? Was there a lot of music in your house, with your parents?
KW: Well, yes and no. My parents, they liked music, but neither one of them played instruments. My dad always had Hank Jr. or Lynyrd Skynyrd on in the back of his truck. On my mom’s side of the family, my granny who I’ve been talking about, who’s amazing, she comes from a long line of strong, opinionated, good women. She always played and wrote songs; she has all kinds of songs that she’s written. She just played the piano and it was for therapy, just for a hobby. It wasn’t anything she did for a profession, but some of the songs are pretty damn good.
My great grandmother, my granny’s mother, her name was Maurice Rawlins and she thumb picked the guitar. I was actually able to know her until she passed away my senior year of high school. I was able to know my great grandparents, which is amazing, and she was very, very meaningful. Apparently, it’s just down the line on that side of my family; they all played. My granny always had old 8-tracks playing of Loretta, Conway, Freddie Hart, everything. Of course, Elvis. The classic country radio station was always on, at my granny’s house, so that was all natural to me.
What was the first song you wrote?
KW: Let’s see. I would never, ever show anybody songs from then. I don’t remember writing these, but my family has some of the first songs I ever wrote. I didn’t put them to music, but they signed them “age nine.” Those songs were just about like, I don’t know, playing outside or something.
Then when I started playing guitar—I was around twelve years old when I got my first guitar—I wrote a song and it was the first time that I put lyrics to guitar, and I essentially copied off of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower.” It was literally the same chord. That’s all I remember about it. I think it was called “The Hope Song.” I mean, I was twelve. It’s the first thing I can remember about the first song I wrote. But you know, everyone was just trying to figure out how to do it, so I think we all kind of copied off other people.
And you taught yourself guitar, or were you taking lessons, or was it a little bit of both?
KW: I taught myself first, and then I was able to learn a couple of songs on my own; I just learned a lot of stuff by ear. I played piano when I was little, and I had learned all that by ear. Then my mom started getting me lessons. When I was in middle school and high school, I started taking guitar lessons. So, it was a little bit of both.
NPR’s Ann Powers talks about your songwriting as being super matter-of-fact, almost deadpan—just very direct in the way you tell stories. Have you always been that kind of storyteller?
KW: Yeah, I think in a way. That’s kind of a compliment to me, actually. Ann has always been such a huge support; I feel like she’s always understood me in a way. All I have ever really wanted to do is write the best songs I could, and to tell stories. Obviously, things had to be refined. I don’t feel like I started writing some of my better songs until I was twenty-one, and that’s over ten years ago. Even now, I feel that way. I think every writer feels like the thing they just wrote is their favorite. It’s a growing process, and I have a lot of room to grow. I hope I always feel that way.
Tell us about They'll Never Keep Us Down, the new EP.
KW: They'll Never Keep Us Down was a community project to raise money for some organizations that I cared about doing important work in Kentucky. The songs were carefully chosen favorites—to come out in my own voice. I wanted these messages to fall on potentially new ears, and I wanted the collection to spark discussion and encourage progress. I started asking myself what my role was in true change, and I wanted to use the tools I had to encourage it. A lot of it got me out of my comfort zone, and I was happy to embrace that.
Seems some of that surfaced in your songwriting, for example, “Sunday’s Children.”
KW: I believe in equality for all people, but I also believe in the working man and the working woman. I think all these worlds go together a lot more than people realize. I mean, there are gay country people out there. There are a lot of stereotypes, and people are really misunderstood. I just try to be me. I don’t think the way I feel makes me better than anybody else. I think that’s what a lot of people think about themselves, that just because they feel a certain way, it makes them better. It really doesn’t. But I do think it’s important to have a voice.
A lot of people were angry about that song because they maybe didn’t understand it, or maybe there were some hypocritical people, and that’s okay. But I’ve had a lot of people just be like, “Thank you. Thank you for saying that.” That's just what was on my heart. That’s why I wrote that. I think all art is political, whether people want it to be that way or not, you know? That song is not a beat down on Christianity whatsoever. I think faith can be a really great thing for many people.
Can we talk about “Kentucky 1988?” What’s special and different about that song? Where did y’all shoot the video?
KW: Honestly, I did not foresee us making a video for that song when the record first came out. It just resonated with a lot of people. I don’t think I even really realized how much it did, but so many people reached out about it. That proved to me that there’s so much strength in being vulnerable in your story. Even if your story isn’t exactly like somebody else’s, people will still find a part of themselves in it.
I just didn’t have a record yet with a song that told something from the beginning for me. I’ve said this a lot in interviews, but I didn’t have my “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” So this song talks about my life growing up.
It really seemed to strike a chord with people, so I ended up making a video for it. The shots in the truck are actually in my granddaddy’s old truck. It’s a ‘90s Chevy. We didn’t really know what we were going to do at first, but the trip ended up being like a memory portal, you know? That’s why there’s all these blurry images, and then it keeps going back to me singing in the truck. That’s the truck I learned to drive in, out on the pasture, in the cow field. I was much too young to do that, you know, but we all did it.
How old were you?
KW: Old enough to touch the pedals, so probably twelve, thirteen. I was kinda nervous about it being too nostalgic. I didn’t want to do anything cheesy or hokey. I think we were able to accomplish that; the film was really beautiful, and it’s just a little glimpse into my life. I hope people enjoy it.
You’re so specific, even in the song, about the memories of this place that you grew up in. Did you feel some kind of responsibility? Is there something that you wanted to convey about this place?
KW: I think it’s really important to embrace your story. I feel really grateful to have grown up in such a beautiful rural area. I think everybody from all walks of life should be proud of that. Especially country people. I know when I was growing up, a lot of people were like, “Well, I can’t do this. I can’t do that. I don’t have the opportunity to do it.” I think Kentuckians should be proud. That’s a special thing that makes us who we are: culture, of all kinds.
Accents are cool. I think accents are the last living like thing that’s kind of special about a region. I think certain regions of our country have some really colorful, colorful places. There’s a lot of stories, and I’m proud of that. I want everybody else to feel like they can be proud of it, too. Especially young women, you know. You can do anything.
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