By Sarah Rodman
October 25, 2019 at 11:00 AM EDT
Laura E. Partain

When John Prine heard Kelsey Waldon sing, the revered singer-songwriter had what is likely a very typical reaction: “I believed her,” says Prine simply.

He also believed in her, signing the 31-year-old Kentucky native to his Oh Boy records imprint– something he hadn’t done in 15 years — because he heard something special in her stone country songs about love and fear and fate and longing and the possibilities of the road that stretches out before us. He knew he had to do his part to make sure she was exposed to a wider audience. Oh Boy released her dynamic latest album White Noise/White Lines earlier this month. The collection pivots from waltz-time weepers like “Run Away” to blues-inflected jams like “Sunday’s Children” to the slow-burning title track with ease and has a few surprise interludes interspersed throughout. “I heard her voice on some previous recordings but then seeing her live she’s just believable,” says Prine. “There’s a lot of songwriters in Nashville and some of them just try to come up with stuff that they think is interesting, but you can tell that Kelsey is writing about stuff she knows about. I just love her voice.”

Coming from one of the most universally acclaimed artists of his generation–covered by everyone from Bonnie Raitt to George Strait and enjoying an overdue renaissance thanks to his award-winning 2018 album The Tree of Forgiveness— that is high praise indeed.

It’s a seal of approval that Waldon herself has trouble fully understanding, even after multiple performances with Prine, for whom she is serving as an opening act on several dates this fall.

“I’ll get too freaked out if I think about it too much,” she says with a laugh. “But I do realize how absolutely special it is and I realize how incredibly lucky I am as well.”

Luck has played only a small part in Waldon’s success. She’s been grinding it out on the Nashville scene paying her dues for years. “I was playing all the honky-tonks and stuff while I was in school,” she says of her time at Belmont University. ‘I didn’t really do a lot of campus stuff.” She graduated to balancing bartending with playing those bars and releasing two albums independently to burgeoning acclaim. “I paid for my last record essentially from bartending at a tourist bar,” she says. And while it was admittedly hard work, she’s grateful for putting in the time. “Between my upbringing, bartending, and the music business, my skin is pretty thick at this point,” she says with a smile. “Nothing fazes me anymore.” Except maybe the recognition of John Prine.

Sitting at a long picnic table in the backyard of the pop-up Luck Mansion in Nashville at Americanafest recently– Willie Nelson’s CBD-infused java is on offer in the coffee shop– Waldon reflected on her road from tiny Monkey’s Eyebrow, KY to duetting on stage with her hero and a few of the songs on her new album White Noise/White Lines.

Andrew Lepley/Redferns; Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images

Entertainment Weekly: In addition to doing some dates opening for other artists, you are hitting the road for your own headlining club shows, which must be exciting.
Kelsey Waldon: I am excited because we’ve just been doing support slots for almost the last two years while this record was kind of in [a] holding [pattern] and they were amazing support slots– John Prine and my friend Tyler Childers, Jamey Johnson– it was awesome, it helped us out a lot. We really started seeing a difference in the crowd and we’re like, “Wow, something’s happening here.” People were actually singing the lyrics!

It’s lovely that John is having this moment of renewed acclaim and that his peers and the performers he’s influenced are getting a chance to celebrate his artistry while he is still here.
It’s amazing. It’s incredible that Tree of Forgiveness was one of John’s best-selling records and to me, I’m just like, ‘Ya’ll, that’s John Prine, like Bruised Orange John Prine! Fair and Square John Prine!’ I mean just all these other records, he just keeps reinventing himself.

And part of that reinvention is sharing some of his spotlight with you. Did that come out of the blue?
No, these kinds of relationships build over time. I had known [his team] and met Fiona, his lovely wife and manager and it felt like they had always been in my corner. They heard my last record I’ve Got A Way and eventually the whole team was behind me and once John was on board, the rest was history. I’d done two independent records before – and I’m so glad I did them that way because I learned a lot- but I think it was clear this time around: ‘Okay, people are waiting on this record, we need to do something that feels like it’s elevated.’

You kick things off with the locomotive jam “Anyhow” which feels like a real statement song about finding inner strength no matter what. It seems purposeful that you made that the first track.
For sure, I didn’t know where else to put it on the record. We tried to put it in other places and I was just like, ‘No, this seems like it has to be the first thing.” Some people would say to maybe put a song that would surprise people first but I was like, “No. That’s not the way that I think when I put sequences together.’

Was there a specific catalyst?
Just everything all at once. I had a moment where I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen in my career. There were some really exciting moments in 2017 and then there was some stuff that was semi-depressing. That year I’d made my debut at the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman and for me, that was a huge deal and then sold out [the Nashville nightclub] The Station Inn, which was awesome. I had this super awesome weekend and then we drove down to Houston, Texas and there were like five people there and it was terrible. I’m not going to say it was a terrible show because those five people were singing every word – and that doesn’t mean that that’s not a success, it was just not a well-organized tour. I think where that song came from was just the centeredness of, “Okay, you can’t ride too high on some of these things. You have to keep on your true north and you don’t look left or right.” I think we should definitely celebrate [a great moment], especially when you’ve worked hard but I think there’s a fine balance. I’m so thankful for the support. That tune is definitely about embracing yourself, even if it doesn’t fit the mold. I always call it my hillbilly zen.

It feels like Bob Dylan really emerges as an influence on this album.
Bob’s very important. I have so many influences. I don’t think I ever won’t make country music because it’s just a huge part of who I am, it’s so deep in my DNA in a way, and my voice is going to be on it so I think it’s always going to be country. It’s like Dolly [Parton]. If Dolly did a disco record, she’d still be Dolly. But Bob was a huge influence when I first started writing songs. Literally, my first song I ever wrote on guitar was basically a rip off of “All Along the Watchtower.”

There are a couple of fun little interludes on the album including one that sounds like your dad leaving a voicemail about hearing you sing on the radio. Is that really him?
Yes. He leaves me voicemails all the time.

He leaves voicemails to you saying “I heard my daughter on the radio”? That’s so sweet but also funny that he says to you “my daughter.”
Yeah, he talks like that. You have to know my dad. It’s awesome. The interludes, I tried not to overdo those but I just wanted to do something that felt really personal and transparent. I wanted the album to feel like an experience.

It’s such a throwback too, remember when people did those on R&B and hip-hop records in the ’90s and 2000s?
Yes. [Laughs] Janet Jackson, The Velvet Rope. That’s where I’m getting it!

You are a person who generally writes autobiographically as opposed to in the voice of characters, correct?
Yeah. Everything’s real.

So “Kentucky 1988” is your story?
That’s the year I was born, so basically I was just trying to write from the beginning: here’s my story of origin. I feel like I just haven’t really had my “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” I didn’t have that one tune and I just wanted to do that on this record. It feels like my Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan like ‘This is who I am. And I’ve never really told y’all who I was. But this is a good place to start.’

Kelsey Waldon is currently on tour through the end of the year with dates coming up in Atlanta, Nashville, and Austin.

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