Kelsey Waldon: Interview From Railbird
Kelsey Waldon has had a whirl-wind year and is busy making a name for herself in the world of country music. Waldon hails from Monkey’s Eyebrow in western Kentucky, but has made her home of nearly ten years in Nashville, Tennessee. She has gone from serving drinks and playing in the local Honky Tonks of Nashville to gracing the stages of the famed Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium.
I met up with Kelsey after she finished up a fantastic set on The Burl stage at Railbird Music Festival in Lexington, Kentucky. We heard several from her two previous albums, 2014’s The Goldmine and 2016’s I’ve Got a Way, but the crowd was most excited to hear the tracks she performed from her forthcoming and most personal album yet, White Noise/White Lines. It’s been nearly a year since I first met Kelsey at the Hope in the Hills music festival, Healing Appalachia, in Lewisburg, West Virginia. We took a moment to catch up and then found a fairly quiet area backstage at Railbird to get into the details of what she’s been up to this past year and what is yet to come.
You were recently signed with John Prine’s Oh Boy Records. How did that relationship come about? Were you shopping for a record label or were you approached by them?
I’ve known the team from Oh Boy for about 3 years now. It’s really just been this organic relationship that kept blossoming. The whole team has always been really supportive of me. I met Fiona [Prine] first, really, then Jody [Whelan] and Eileen [Tilson]. When my last record came out, I’ve Got a Way, they heard the music and were big fans. I met Fiona at a tribute show I did for Jessi Zazu where I sang “Fish and Whistle,” a John Prine song. Fiona and I met and she told me that her and John were fans. She really gave me encouraging words at that show. Fiona said, “maybe not this year, but next year, I promise, we will get you on some shows with John.” She kept her promise. They always invited me out to stuff and were such a big support. I just don’t think they were ready to release anything besides John yet. The timing was just right. I think singing with John just caused the bond. After that, the rest was history. He kept asking about putting it [the album] out. He just really started championing and endorsing what I do and come early this year, they were ready to do it.
With this being your first album in three years, were there any obstacles or roadblocks in getting to make the next album? You had a lot of buzz after the last record and fans seem to have been eager for the new music for a while. Was the song “Anyhow,” perhaps, inspired by any obstacles leading up to this album?
Yeah, that is sort of, along with many, many other things, what inspired that song. Just in general, it, kind of, started from one idea and then I grabbed the inspiration from my own experiences. I also wanted it to be reflective of how everyone goes to work. I don’t think people realized how hard it is to actually do what it is we’re doing and have a career at it at all. I did have a lot of obstacles and I would have loved to have put it out right after the last, but I wanted to be smart about it. I was afraid to put it out myself this time. I had done the first two records that way and I have an amazing team, but the missing piece was Oh Boy. I waited until I found the right family and it was worth the wait. The timing was perfect and we kept sharpening the knife and getting the show right. When I look back at it now, I realize how perfect the timing was. It is also about embracing yourself even if it doesn’t fit the mold and also just realizing the power that is inside of you. It’s always been there. You just have to dig for it. I like to tell the story about when my last album came out and we sold out the Station Inn and did my debut at the Ryman, then we drove to Houston, Texas and there was like five people there. So, there’s a lot that can be very discouraging, but you don’t look left and don’t look right and you keep on your true North and keep going.
So, I guess we can segue into the music video you have just released for “Anyhow.” Tell us about the themes behind the video.
It was supposed to be a “Church of Degenerates,” in a way. The approach to the storyline was that I was speaking my truth to the congregation of outcasts of the world. It turned out really well. We didn’t know who was all going to show up. It was romantic and perfect as it was in a church in South Nashville that happened to be under construction. That created a lot of imagery of “rebuilding” in the video with the scaffolding visible in the background.
I really like all of the personal touches you added into the upcoming album with the voicemail from your father to the recording of the Chickasaw Tribal chant. Were those ideas you had after you were putting the album together or did you go into the development of the album knowing you wanted to use those elements?
I actually decided to put those in later. I knew that I wanted to do that kind of thing and make it more personal. I loved it. It reminded me of some of my favorite hip hop albums like Outkast or something. I know it sounds crazy. I had always wanted to do something like that and this album just felt like an experience in that way. I wanted it to feel very personal and transparent and vulnerable. We tried not to overdo it and to only put it in places that I knew it would work. I think we really made it work and it came out well.
I’ve always thought of you as more of a Honky Tonk Country artist, but it seems that you have been endorsed and immersed in the Americana music scene now. Upon listening to Robert Earl Keen’s Americana: The 51st State podcast, you were mentioned by Tamara Saviano (first female President of the Americana Music Association), in an interview, as currently being one of her favorite songwriters. How has your presence in that scene evolved?
Wow, she really said that? I used to intern for Tamara. That’s how I met my publicist, Maria [Ivey]. I had spent some time in Austin and I had a friend down there, Brian Atkinson, who wrote one of the Townes Van Zandt biographies. Townes, along with Guy Clark and John Prine, is one of my songwriting heroes. Tamara was looking for an intern to transcribe her Guy Clark book. I didn’t initially want to do it, but I’m glad I changed my mind. Tamara had actually reached out to me after Brian sent her a video of me doing “Rex’s Blues” by Townes Van Zandt. She couldn’t believe I was doing a Townes Van Zandt song, so she got a hold of me and the rest was history. Tamara taught me so much just by hanging out with her as she would invite me to things. I started seeing what she was doing and now I am really seeing from afar, years later, what she was doing. She was really a mentor to me and introduced me to Maria. We were each other’s first client in Nashville and now Maria is kicking ass. My whole team has been pretty homegrown, organic. That’s amazing that Tamara said that. Tamara is like a hero to me. The Americana scene is much more of a community. I, through and through, consider myself a country singer, but where do we go now?
I think that’s what Robert Earl Keen is trying to address with his podcast. What signifies Americana Music?
Things have changed, there was a time when Guy Clark was played on Country radio and now, he’s considered an Americana artist. To me, it’s a way for everyone to still have a format and have a career, of sorts or to have a designated radio station. I love when people call me a Country artist. That means a lot to me. I love all kinds of music. I think the music I make will always be purely Country, but I do like to explore within that realm. I think Country and Soul and Blues all go hand in hand because it all comes from the rural areas. It all is Country music, for the most part.
Now that you have had a couple of collaborations with John Prine, are there any other artists that you would like to do some co-writing with or collaborate on a project?
I have been co-writing again, recently. I don’t do it a lot. I usually only write by myself, so it’s been a new challenge for me to do that. I would honestly love for John and I to write a song together, so maybe he’ll want to sit down and do that soon. There are so many people I’d love to collaborate with and so many amazing women too – like Brandi Carlile and Amanda Shires.
Speaking of which, if you could devise your own all-women super group, who would you want to include?
I love their idea of what they are doing is to have everybody involved. I really think that is how we make progress – working with artists that just happen to be women. I would love to collaborate with my friend, Erin Rae, she’s an amazing singer-songwriter. Senora May or Caroline Spence. I’d really love to just be the fourth member of the trio of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris. Of course, Margo Price is another great one.
Kelsey Waldon’s first album under Oh Boy Records, White Noise/White Lines, is set to debut on October 4, 2109. Starting this week, Waldon can be seen and heard appearing at Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina and then back in Nashville for AmericanaFest performances with Tanya Tucker and Maggie Rose at 3rd & Lindsley and also, Yeti & Bobby Hotel Presents: Kelsey Waldon, Chris Shiflett, the Wood Brothers, and North Mississippi All-Stars. Kelsey will be burning up the tour schedule in support of her upcoming album as she joins John Prine on several West Coast dates and then on to her own headlining shows this fall.
All Photos Courtesy of Laura E. Partain: