Finding a kindred spirit (and champion) in John Prine
Growing up in rural Western Kentucky, Kelsey Waldon wasn’t distracted by the bright lights of Paducah, 20 miles to the east. She spent much of her time practicing her guitar and listening to country music in her room.
Those years nurtured a sensitive soul in the singer-songwriter who is making a name for herself in Nashville with “I’ve Got a Way,” her second album.
“I have my way of doing things,” Waldon says of writing songs. “I have certain visions of certain things I want to do. Sometimes songwriting is just making sense of everything around me and everything that’s going on.
“When I started writing songs, I didn’t know anybody in the world back home. I was in my bedroom writing songs. I was writing by myself and that what I do now.”
She wrote nine of the 11 tracks on “I’ve Got a Way,” but the covers were written by people whose music spent a lot of time in her home: Bill Monroe and the Gosdin brothers, Vern and Rex. Waldon is well versed in music history (not just country, but the Beatles, Bob Dylan and classic soul as well), and gets excited just talking about top-notch pedal steel players.
“I have periods where I become obsessed with things,” she laughs. “Brett (Resnick), my steel player, and I, we do things for a reason. We were certainly inspired by Weldon Myrick, who played with Connie Smith in the ’60s and ’70s.
“There was about a decade there where Lloyd Green and Buddy Emmons and Weldon Myrick … session musicians could be very creative and innovative and I’ve always been really inspired by that. So that was certainly a big influence on the last record.”
Resnick’s pedal steel dominates “I’ve Got a Way,” providing the foundation for Waldon’s classic crooner voice that sounds like it is soaked in the ’60s and ’70s as well. That’s not accidental.
“Meeting Connie (the legendary Country Music Hall of Fame singer who is married to Marty Stuart) at the Opry when she came to talk to me after a show was a big moment for me,” Waldon says. “I listened to her records for a long time. Been listening to Marty playing with Lester Flatt (for a long time).”
It can be thrilling to meet the people who played the soundtrack to your teenaged self, even more so when they’re impressed with your work. Waldon recently played at a tribute to John Prine. The stage wasn’t big enough for everyone who wanted to be part of that project.
“Prine, you know, man,” she says, still stumbling over the words weeks after the event, “that’s just definitely … he’s one of my biggest heroes. His whole team is very supportive … his wife, Fiona, all of them. Sometimes I can’t believe it, but it’s been really cool.”
It seems that Waldon’s way of doing things was the right way all along.
Kelsey Waldon plays Southgate House Revival Oct. 24, 2019
Watch Kelsey Waldon play “Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road”
Originally published in 2017
Kelsey Waldon visited the Southgate House Revival in 2017, a short time after she played on a tribute concert for John Prine. When she returns this week, it will be as the first artist signed to the legendary singer’s Oh Boy label in 15 years.
Depending upon one’s perspective, two years can be the blink of an eye or a lifetime. For Waldon, it’s been a bit of both. It’s the culmination of years of polishing her songwriting and stagecraft, and some serendipity.
“After that John Prine tribute was the first time I met Fiona, his lovely wife and manager,” says Waldon, who released “White Noise, White Lines” Oct. 4. “They had heard my last record (“I’ve Got a Way”) and she said, ‘John and I are big fans.’ I just stared at her in disbelief, pretty much. She said, ‘I’m going to send a picture of us to John right now.’ And I was like, ‘What is happening???’ ”
The Kentucky native laughs, something she does easily and often, while telling the story. She understands she was lucky to catch Prine’s attention, but was prepared when opportunity arrived.
“I think if you put in the work, put your head down and really be patient and humble, put those blinders on and keep going because everybody’s got their time,” Waldon says. “There are late bloomers, too. It’s not a competition. I think it ends up being the people who stuck around, the people who kept doing it. That’s hard to do sometimes, because you might feel like the last man standing.”
Waldon was standing with Prine on the Grand Ole Opry stage when he announced the signing in May, although that was the culmination of a deal that had been in the works for some time. She had spent most of 2018 talking to different labels about “White Noise” after self-releasing “I’ve Got a Way” in 2016 and “The Goldmine” in 2014.
“I tried to find the right home for it almost all of last year. There were a lot of things that sounded exciting, but in the end is was I don’t think this is right,” she says. “(At the same time) I was able to open a couple of shows for John, so when we started to singin’ together and started to get to know each other, that’s when I was fortunate enough to talk about (a record deal).”
Although Waldon has lived in Nashville for more than a decade, “White Noise,” like its creator, has its roots in western Kentucky. The title track recounts a visit home to Monkey’s Eyebrow that includes a solar eclipse, sharing songs with members of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma who were visiting her father’s hunting lodge, and falling in love. “Black Patch” is the story of local tobacco farmers taking on the corporate power that tried to wrest control of the market in the early 1900s.
But it’s “Kentucky (Interlude),” a voice message from Waldon’s father that introduces “Kentucky 1988,” (“My ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ story,” she says) that goes straight to the heart of the matter. “Hey, babe, we’re still down here in Muhlenberg County, I’m drivin’ around lookin’ for turkeys, and here my daughter comes up on the radio … it’s pretty cool. Love you.”
For any parent who has ever been proud of a child, it will make body hair stand or eyes become moist.
“I was kind of leery at first of at first of all the interludes (there’s also a snippet from the Chickasaws),” Waldon says. “I wanted to do it so it would be effective, I didn’t want to just throw things in there. I had to sift through all the things I wanted to include just to make it super personal and obviously very human.
“It’s been really encouraging to hear people, everyone has the same reaction. I don’t think I realized that it would be emotional for people. But that’s why we share our stories. We talk about these things, it really makes a difference. It helps other people.”
That’s pretty cool.
Kelsey Waldon plays Southgate House Revival Oct. 24, 2019, with Honey & Houston
Watch Kelsey Waldon and John Prine sing “Paradise”
2019 - Listen to the interview
Bill and Kelsey recently caught up on the past couple of years over a phone call. Listen in as they talk about her signing with John Prine’s Oh Boy label, the influence Prine has had on her, and her latest release “White Noise, White Lines”.