As with his expansive, multi-part documentary film Jazz back in 2001, Ken Burns’ recently broadcast homage to the rich and varied history of country music had me glued to the screen each night, revisiting the artists (oh, Emmylou) and songs (sigh, “Boulder to Birmingham”) I love, while discovering plenty of music and stories for the very first time. But if there’s one gripe I have with the otherwise comprehensive and meticulously executed project, it’s the fact that its coverage concluded chronologically, and rather abruptly, with Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin orchestrated career resurgence in the mid 1990s, a handful of years prior to his death in 2003.
Granted, a brief montage at the end of the film’s eighth and final episode showed flashes of the country artists who have ascended to prominence throughout the past few decades. But the film’s climax nevertheless seemed to sell this contemporary stable of songwriters and musicians far short of the attention they are most deservedly due. In explaining why he and his team opted to end the film before the turn of the century during a recent Wall Street Journal interview, writer-producer Dayton Duncan said, “We could have a great conversation about whether Blake Shelton or Taylor Swift will endure as significant artists in 20 years. Maybe, maybe not.” Even this flippant remark namechecking the most mainstream of modern-day artists—the latter of whom is arguably far, far removed from her country pedigree these days—glosses over all of the current artists who are proving vital to the sustenance and future of the genre.
One such artist who embodies the dichotomy between country music’s traditional roots and its ongoing evolution as a vital American art form, as well as its inextricable connection to folk music and rock & roll, is Kelsey Waldon. Equipped with a powerful, versatile voice and a penchant for crafting pensive, personal lyrics that compel you to listen attentively to her every word, the Kentucky-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter-guitarist is poised to expand her already loyal legion of listeners when she releases her terrific third album White Noise/White Lines this Friday, October 4th.
I had the good fortune of connecting with Waldon recently to discuss the album in greater detail, what it means to be the featured artist on songwriting legend John Prine’s indie imprint Oh Boy Records, and what the future holds for her.
Congratulations on the upcoming release of White Noise/White Lines! It’s a fantastic record. How was the experience of writing and recording it different than your two previous albums (2014’s The Goldmine and 2016’s I’ve Got A Way)?
Thank you! I truly appreciate that. This record still feels like it's 100% me, just like the other records did, but this new one certainly comes with a lot of growth. A lot of miles have happened between this new one and the last two. The writing experience wasn't crazy different, I've always written everything just about the same way, but it just depends on where I'm at in my life that makes things different. I try to look at each record like they are a document of where I was at the time, while at the same time consistently remaining true to myself throughout them all.
I was very proud to use my live band on this record, which does make this album feel a bit different than the others. It feels like there is a breath on this record and that it moves with our energy. The record sounds unique to me because of that. On a personal level, I feel like it's more definitive than the others. If I died tomorrow, I'd be happy with what I said on this one.
So…White Noise/White Lines. This title can be interpreted in many different ways, I think. How’d you come up with it?
That's great that you feel that way. I feel like it can too, it's non-conclusive in that way. That's one thing that drew me to the title. I wanted it to mean different things to different people, and also not have listeners thinking that they already knew what this album was about. With a title like White Noise/White Lines, you might just have to listen to the whole record front-to-back to really understand it. I liked that idea better than something conclusive. The title comes from a song on the album of the same name.
Can you share more about how you formed the connection with John Prine and what it means to you to be Oh Boy Records’ featured artist?
John and his wife Fiona had heard my previous independent record I've Got A Way and apparently had loved it. I actually met the whole Oh Boy team after that record and that is when our relationship began. It felt like they were always in my corner, and they were people that I trusted and admired. That actually means something to me in this business. John and I met in early/late 2018 when I was fortunate enough to open some shows for him. We really bonded singing together. It was and still is a dream come true. To have John endorse my music and my work the way that he has, it means everything for someone like me. I feel like I've hit the jackpot in many ways. Not to mention, he was my hero when I first started writing songs and he still is!
You’ve mentioned previously that “This whole album is my story, it’s everything that I would ever want to say.” How does it feel to be so candid and forthcoming through your music, knowing that your listeners will interpret your words in various ways and form their own perspectives about your life story?
I think that's fine. I think it's healthy, I think it's human. Any songwriter or artist I’ve ever loved or looked up to was human and vulnerable, sometimes even to a fault. They all wore their hearts on their sleeves. I'd like to believe that by sharing my truth, others will be inspired to embrace their own. For better or for worse. I'd rather be interesting than boring, and I think I'd rather be hated or loved than lukewarm. [Laughs]
Also, writing songs can sometimes help me understand myself. I hope my music can help others understand themselves in some way, too. When you let it all out like that, you start to realize that you are not alone in this world.
“Kentucky, 1988” is one of the many standouts on the record and certainly one of the most personal songs. How has your upbringing shaped who you are today?
My upbringing, for better or for worse, is a huge part of who I am. Even the bad things, I know it still made me who I am today. I feel lucky that I grew up in one of the most beautiful places on this planet, with some pretty resilient and wise stock. I'll always be a Kentuckian.
I’ve listened to the album a handful of times now and the song that seems to resonate the most with me, both musically and lyrically, is “Sunday’s Children.” Can you elaborate a bit on the message within the song, specifically in lines like, “Sunday’s children are being lied to” and “we all want the same things / we all dream the same dreams / don’t have to be just like you / to understand universal truths?”
Seems like people have either loved or hated that one, and that's totally fine. I know who I was singing for. I don't think any kind of faith is a bad thing. I think it can be a very good thing, but sometimes beliefs can cause self-righteous attitudes that cause us to have less empathy or complete misunderstandings of other people. It's like we let this imaginary line divide us. I sat in the pews one time and listened to a preacher preach against homosexuality and other beliefs, the way he presented it all, it just struck me wrong. I thought, it's really terrible that you are encouraging everyone else in this place to feel the same way you do. To be scared of other people, that aren't like yourself. Worse than that, to make anyone feel wrong for who they are.
Of course, anyone is free to believe what they want. I believe in equality. No matter what race, color, origin, sexuality, or religion, we all just want happiness, to be accepted, and to be loved. That's universal truth to me, and I believe universal truth was there a long time before there was organized religion.
The album concludes with your powerful rendition of the bluegrass/folk pioneer Ola Belle Reed’s “My Epitaph.” Why did you choose this song to cover and to close the album? Are there other artists and songs that you haven’t covered on record or live yet that you’re itching to try at some point down the road?
I never want to choose anything to cover that would be too obvious, and I always want to do something I might be able to make my own. Ola Belle's version of "My Epitaph" gave me peace at a time I really needed it, and that's when I decided to cover it for the record. It felt like the obvious choice to close the album—it completes the cycle. The lyrics are like the mic drop at the end of the record for me. I also hopefully wanted to shine some light to Ola Belle Reed and encourage others to dig into that music. You never know who I'm going to cover next, we do John Anderson, Bill Monroe, Gosdin Brothers and Bill Withers on the road. I've got a Stanley Brothers song I'd love to work out.
When did you know for sure that you wanted to commit to developing a career making music? Who (or what) has inspired you to keep progressing toward reaching your goals?
I always knew what I wanted to do from a very young age, it was just the navigation on how to get there that was the tough part. I'm very lucky for the strong support system I've had as far as community and family. In the end though, it all came down to myself in a way. You've got to believe you can do it and definitely commit. Put your head down and try to write real songs and stay focused.
Similar to New York City, where Albumism is based, Nashville can be both a blessing and a curse for aspiring musicians. On one hand, there’s a wealth of opportunity when it comes to playing live, connecting with other musicians and industry influencers, and refining your craft. On the other hand, there’s a ton of competition that can make it challenging to stand out among the crowd. How has living and working in Nashville influenced the evolution of your music?
You're right, it can be the most inspiring, creative place and also a dark, soul-less place at the same time. You've got to keep a balance. I think the important thing to do is to stay humble, work hard, be kind and never lose sight of who you are. I've always just tried to keep my blinders on and focus on what I wanted to do, rather than be concerned with what others are doing. Also, to not compare myself to anyone else. I don't want to use my energy in that way. I think when good things happen for other people, we should be happy for them. There's room for everybody.
I live about 35 minutes outside of Nashville now, in Cheatham County actually. It gets a lot more quiet out here and dark at night. I was always meant to go back to the country. That being said, if it wasn't for Nashville, I wouldn't have met my amazing band, team, friends and so many others. I'm grateful for the way it kicked my ass and challenged me to be better at my craft.
You have quite the busy tour itinerary for the next three months or so. Is the prospect of setting out on the road for so long daunting or thrilling or perhaps a mix of both?
I've been touring for quite a few years now, so it's nothing new for me. It can sometimes feel like work these days, but I sincerely love getting to do what I do and it's really amazing to actually meet the folks who have connected with you through your music. Actually getting to play the shows is the fun part and that's what we work so hard for...the music. The music is what matters. Performing is a release for me, almost as much as writing is. I love my band and my crew and I always look forward to the road. I'm lucky that I love the people I'm with out there, because it's a huge sacrifice not always being around the ones you love at home. I definitely miss that as well.
OK, last question. In the spirit of Albumism, what are your FIVE favorite albums of all time?
John Prine’s John Prine, Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountian Boys’ The Blue Album, The Band’s The Brown Album, Emmylou Harris’ Luxury Liner, Bob Dylan Blood on the Tracks. Soooo…this is really hard for me. Can’t choose just five, but I’ll stop before I go too crazy. George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, The Staple Singers’ Freedom Highway, JD Crowe & the New South’s My Home Ain't in the Hall of Fame, Neil Young’s Harvest, and John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain.
SEE Kelsey Waldon on tour | Dates