Kelsey Waldon (Photo by Alysse Gafkjen)
Late in her set at Jammin Java recently, Kelsey Waldon told the audience, “I put my records out on a label called ‘Oh Boy Records.” Oh Boy Records, she explained, is the late John Prine’s label. Prine, she said, “became my friend and my mentor.” Her sets usually include a cover of one of his songs; she played “Paradise,” a song about Prine’s Kentucky coal mining family roots. “John and I,” she added, “used to sing this one together.”
Waldon belongs to the diverse group of artists, all hailing from Kentucky or its border, who were the last to sign with the label before Prine passed away in 2020. She grew up in a small, rural town in the western part of the state with the truly outstanding name Monkey’s Eyebrow. (It’s so remarkable, I’m willing to forgive the fact that monkeys don’t have eyebrows.) She wrote the song “Kentucky 1988,” which appears on her 2019 LP, White Noise/White Lines, to tell her “origin story.” After time in Nashville, she now lives on the Kentucky-Tennessee border.
Waldon, Arlo McKinley, and Emily Scott Robinson may all belong to the Americana genre, but they’re stylistically quite different. Waldon plays pretty straight-up country, kind of honky-tonk, while McKinley comes from a background in punk and metal, and has a much heavier sound, and Robison leans more toward the acoustic folk tradition. Beyond a common origin, all of them are excellent songwriters, and they’ve all, as Waldon said, “been doing this a minute.” (Her first release, the EP Dirty Feet, Dirty Hands, came out 15 years ago.) She noted how much she appreciated the strong turnout on a Monday night.
On Aug. 12, she put out her latest album, No Regular Dog. At Jammin’ Java on Dec. 5, the set opened with the title track. “Backwater Blues” reflects on growing up in a flood zone, and “the water taking everything away.” “Sweet Little Girl” deals with the opioid epidemic devastating many parts of rural America. (The late Justin Townes Earle noted that, when he moved to Appalachia, heroin became much easier to find.)
Watch Kelsey Waldo perform “Sweet Little Girl” live for Troublesome Creek on YouTube:
Most of the album appeared in the set, including “Peace Alone (Reap What You Sowe),” “History Repeats Itself,” “Season’s Ending,” and “You Can’t Ever Tell.” On this tour, she told the audience, she’s really gotten a kick out of hearing people sing along to “Tall and Mighty.” Unless I’m mistaken, the sole omission was “Simple As Love” (my experience is that love is hardly ever simple, but rather nearly always fraught and complex, with every unhappy family unhappy in its own way.)
A “spiritual experience I had with in my hometown with some friends from the Chickasaw Nation” inspired the titular cat on White Noise/White Lines. Waldon’s music has been described as “modernized mountain tunes,” and one of the elements that makes it modern is a progressive viewpoint. She takes on the idea of “the big man having his thumb on the little man” in “Black Patch.” “Very Old Batron,” another album track, followed “No Regular Dog” at the beginning of the set.
Waldon isn’t afraid to criticize her chosen genre. “A lot of things could use more character today,” she said, “including country music.” I wouldn’t call her a flamethrower, but she’s not afraid to take a point of view or express an opinion. Mainstream country leans conservative in the sense that a lot of it is songs written by a committee expressing only the must banal, universally accepted ideas. What Waldon does is more adventurous and ambitious. Steve Earle talks about how, in “post-Bob Dylan songwriting” songs are intended to be literature. “Literature” here simply means a conscious attention to craft, to the style of the language and melody, to give the song artistic properties — it doesn’t mean the work is pretentious, as that’s never something I would say about Waldon’s writing.
Other songs in the set included the titular cut of her album I’ve Got A Way; “High in Heels,” the sole selection from The Goldmine; “False King,” “Me and You Again,” “Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road,” “Dirty Old Town,” (the audience’s “only opportunity to two-step”), “The Heartbreak”, and “All By Myself,” which closed the show.
Watch the official music video for “All By Myself” by Kelsey Waldon on YouTube:
At various points, Waldon introduced the folks playing with her. “It’s very important for me to have fiddle in this band,” she said, introducing Libby Lidener, who comes from the mountains of east Tennessee. Speaking of remarkable names, Muskrat Jones played pedal steel, and has also been her fishing buddy on this trip. Bassist Eric Mendez, out of Corpus Christi, Texas, loves vintage jazz t-shirts, and Junior Tutwelier, on electric guitar, goes by the nickname “King Tut.” Drummer Zach Martin hails from her home state, Lexington, to be specific. Notably, Waldon uses her road band for recording.
If you’re looking for real music — music that engages the world, deals with real situations and real problems and real emotions, you can’t go wrong with Kelsey Waldon. If you think country music is all shallow and just a pale version of pop, she might change your mind.