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Another Country: Kelsey Waldon's Tough-As-Nails Songwriting Shines Bright on The Goldmine

Don't call her a throwback artist

Every other Thursday, in his new column Another Country, Duncan Cooper showcases country, folk and bluegrass music that's so often unsung around these parts, with an emphasis on new approaches to old American classics.

For the rest of her career, taking off now and doubtless lasting a long while, Kelsey Waldon will be known as the singer from Monkey's Eyebrow. Her Kentucky hometown has got a strange name, and I wouldn't be surprised if growing up there didn't imbue her (and all its residents) with a certain toughness, a sense to stand up for yourself and be taken seriously despite it all. Nowadays, she lives in Nashville, and on June 24th she'll release her excellent debut album, The Goldmine. Her higher-register voice really takes off on contemporary-sounding, rock-edged songs like "High in Heels" (High in heels, high on pills/ Now who in the hell is gonna pay them bills—goddamn, that first line hooked me right off), but most of the record and its traditional accompaniment seems to operate outside of time entirely, not exactly a transmission from the past but maybe hooking onto something eternal. That's always been where the best country floats—best music in general, usually.

Premiere: Kelsey Waldon, "High in Heels"

“High in Heels” was the first song I heard of yours, through a great live video. It’s a such personal song, and describing a person whom I’m very much not, but can also really relate to, you know what I mean? It's really cool that you say that. It is personal in the sense that it's coming from a real place. It's basically about people I knew when I grew up or about people a lot of people know. It's about desperation. I just wanted to write a song for a certain demographic of people especially in Kentucky. I think country music now—on the pop side it's a whole different thing, but to me a lot of the real country music is real. It's not for kids. It doesn't play around. You listen to "One's on the Way" by Loretta Lynn and that's real life. That song is about here's all these people with the glitter and glam, but there's Peggy Sue in Topeka, Kansas with five kids on her hip. That's real life and country music is a voice for a lot of people. A lot of people don't understand desperation because they don't understand poverty and they don't understand how you really—we could all be there at any minute. Anything in the world could be taken away from us at any moment. Nothing's guaranteed. I wanted to write something to spotlight that demographic of poverty and desperation. You don't really understand why someone would get off on heels until you've really gone through the ebbs and flows and ups and downs of life. It's something I feel very strongly about, and something I want to represent in my music, because a lot of people forget about it. A lot of the world has their thumb on them in a way. I just want to help, even if it's a small voice I want to be a voice for them.

Tell me a little bit about where you come from. It’s a long story. I was born and raised in Western Kentucky, in Ballard County, which is kind of located on the Ohio and sort of in between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. I actually grew up in this little town called Monkey's Eyebrow—that’s the real name of it. All my family’s still lives back there. My dad owns a hunting lodge on the river called Walden Lodge. We lived in a trailer there for a little bit on a hunting field. My parents were real young when they had me; I was the oldest, experimental child (laughs). Ya know, like, I was their first one. My mom was 21. My dad was 26, my age now, which I used to think was so old. Iit’s not! It’s not old!

My parents divorced when I was 13, then we moved, but, yeah, I just lived in numerous houses in Barlow and Monkeys, then I moved to Nashville once when I was 19. It’s about two and a half hours away. Then I moved back, went to school in Kentucky, came back to Nashville, and it was of course totally different this time around. You have to go through all these little setbacks to really—I don't know. I think I had a lot to learn. I had the grit and I had the determination, and I probably had some pretty good songs for an 19-year-old, but I got my ass kicked pretty good. I was here for about a year the first time. I worked a 40-plus-hour, minimum-wage, horrible job to pay my own rent. I was really determined to prove I can do it. I didn’t go to college or anything like that for the first two years after high school. All I really wanted to do was play music and write songs. But I eventually went back to school to figure out what I was gonna do.

What’d you end up studying? I was at Belmont University, which is here in Nashville. I’m the only member of my family that’s graduated from college, so that was kind of a big deal to them. I ended up graduating and that was kind of cool, you know, but I wasn’t too keen on school at all at first. So I got a songwriting degree—I majored in songwriting (laughs). I was like, “Okay, I’ll go, but I have to do this.” I tried to remain open and see if I could learn, to not be shut off, and that was a good challenge for me. There’s only a few people in the program and you had to be accepted into it and—it doesn't mean anything, it doesn’t make you more of a songwriter than somebody. If you don’t have a songwriting degree, it doesn’t mean you’re not a songwriter, obviously. But for me, there were a lot of good tools, ya know, that I learned and I probably hadn’t thought about. You know, sometimes I don’t talk a lot and sometimes I do but, I’m talkin’ a lot today.

Have you ever written for other people, or would you be interested in that? I don't know! A part of me feels like I could do it, because when I’m when I was actually in the songwriting program ant my school, we got projects like that a lot. I kinda took it as a challenge, instead of being afraid of it. That was also the first time I kinda co-written. I’m open to that, but all my songs have always just been me. I’m always surprised when people can relate to my music in their own way. It was just mine, you know? I wanna have my own thing, but a good song is a good song. When it’s good, it’s good, you know? And I would be more than happy for someone to cut one of my songs (laughs). I mean, ya know, imagine if it was somebody good—I don't know anyone in this world that would be mad if somebody like George Strait cut one of their songs.

I heard you work at a honky-tonk in Nashville now. The last guy I interviewed used to own a bar himself—there’s a real charm to that within country music. Yeah, I work at this kinda famous honky-tonk that’s been in Nashville since 1977. The owner, Robert Moore, has another famous honky-tonk that’s down on Broadway. There’s a lot of horrible stuff on Broadway, but this is the real deal. I’m only there two to four days a week, but it’s really good money and it’s helped me do a lot of things. I kind of buckled down a little bit so I can put out this record, and they just let me go and do what I need to and come back if I need the money, and so it’s great that they’re so supportive. I spend a lot of time in honky-tonks so I guess it only feels natural to work in one (laughs). Hey, I love it.

Stream: Kelsey Waldon, "The Goldmine"

In other interviews, you’ve mentioned liking Sturgill Simpson’s music, and of course I’m a fan too. Besides both being from Kentucky, you’ve also both got a great sense of songwriting that just happens to evoke the ’70s. Of course I love Sturgill. I only ever really met him once. We have a lot of mutual friends and I think he's great. The ’70s—I don't like the term throwback artist because I'm just being myself. I'm not trying to say this is better or that is better, it’s just what I'm really into. I've nerded out about all these records from the ’70s—Waylon Jennings, all those RCA recordings, Tammy Wynette, sonically they're incredible to me. They make my ears go crazy, but I'm really into a lot of that soulful funky country a little bit. Tom T. Hall is one of my heroes and is also from Kentucky. Loretta was a great songwriter too. But then you have the vocalists that are my influences as well. I think there's a lot of stuff like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and John Prine, there's a lot of those guys that I love just from a songwriting factor because they really went there in their lyrics. They're real storytellers, and Townes and Guy were great vocalists in their own right, but I have that influence of their songwriting and just like character and voices. I really miss when you could really tell who people were, on the radio and whatnot. You have people like Roger Miller and Waylon and Loretta Lynn all those people were trying to be themselves in one way or another. Even people like Ray Price, I think at one point everyone was trying to be Hank Williams Sr., but they found out they had to be themselves. I don't really know what particularly draws me to that except I love it and I think it's good. I don't know what makes me love pedal steel playing so much. It's just something inside of me. If it's good, it's good. I don't care how old it is or how new. I think the dispute between what is country and what isn't will always be. That'll be ongoing for the rest of life. You know, I just want to do what I do and be myself. The right listeners will find it and respect it for what it is.

Posted:
Another Country: Kelsey Waldon's Tough-As-Nails Songwriting Shines Bright on The Goldmine