Kelsey Waldon was only 19 when she came to Nashville to pursue her career in music. She grew up a few hours away from Music City in the rural community of Monkeys Eyebrow, Kentucky. Waldon, who was already writing songs and singing, wasn’t necessarily heading to the capital of country music to strike it big; she was trying to find her place.
“I just had more of an overwhelming feeling that I had to get out of my hometown and be around people that were just like me,” she said. “I wanted to be taken seriously in what I was doing and be part of a nourishing community of artists, which is what I was able to do here.”
I spoke by phone earlier this week with the 29-year-old, reaching her at her home in Nashville. Waldon performs several sets with her band at the National Folk Festival in Greensboro this weekend.
Waldon released her second record, I’ve Got A Way, last year and it is an album of original tunes, with two covers, showcasing Waldon’s singing, which has a subtle bite to it. There are plenty of elements of classic country to the record. Bright pedal steel guitar is featured throughout, and there are hints of the twangy Bakersfield sound, along with touches of boot-scooting honky-tonk. Waldon isn’t a nostalgia act or a revivalist exactly. She draws on the blueprints of artists she heard growing up, such as Vince Gill and Patty Loveless, who were themselves re-imagining the country tradition with a contemporary spin.
It’s easy to compare Waldon to Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and other female classic country singers and songwriters. But one can tell that Waldon’s influences range far and wide. She’s a fan of artists such as Bill Withers, Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt. On her new record, Waldon covers “Travellin’ Down This Lonesome Road,” a classic song by fellow Kentuckian Bill Monroe (also known as the Father of Bluegrass).
Waldon also does a lovely version of “There Must Be Someone,” a song by the Gosdin Brothers, the folk-rock-ish band that country singer and songwriter Vern Gosdin had with his brother before going solo. There’s a throughline of loneliness and the hardships of solitude on those covers, a theme that runs through Waldon’s own songs as well. But there’s also the suggestion of the strength and fortitude that come from forging one’s own identity through struggle, perseverance and independence.
Waldon’s song “All By Myself” embodies this idea with the line:
When you wanted to be you, you needed somebody else, but I can be me all by myself.
Many of her songs give the suggestion of a life defined by one’s ability to plow through trouble and to drive toward what’s right and what’s real. Waldon said that she, like most songwriters, is just trying to tell stories that seem true, that comes from her own life. There’s uplift and inspiration underneath the heartache.
“I was made to work since I was real young,” Waldon said. “My dad got up everyday at 4 in the morning, went to bed at 8 at night. I come from a long line of strong independent women that had to do a lot of things themselves.”
When I suggest that there’s a vein of hard-nosed, taking-care-of-business attitude to her material, Waldon jokes that anyone who knows her knows that she’s a nerd. But still, her commitment to going on the road, carving out time to write new material (she and her band are recording tracks this fall) and remaining an independent artist all indicate a degree of focus and a work ethic that doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
Yet, it’s not as if all of her songs are necessarily about triumphing over adversity. Some of them, like the sad, memorable rock-tinged “High In Heels” off her first album, are just about the adversity itself. Everybody’s got their own kind of suicide, sings Waldon leading into the chorus of a song about people not managing to thrive though the prospect of salvation and wealth loom around like a kind of insult to their suffering. Elsewhere in the same song Waldon sings,
Church-going people know more than I do/And we might need Jesus, but we also need food.
Waldon has chosen a career as a touring performer, logging hours in a cramped van to play bars and clubs, versus the possibility of working as a songwriter and co-writer in Nashville, splitting the difference in a way that many singer/songwriters find to be a pleasant and stationary alternative to the life of a gigging musician.
“I’d rather whole-ass one thing than half-ass a couple different ones,” she said.
Waldon and her band play a total of five sets, at 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 6:15 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 9 and 2:15 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10 at the National Folk Festival in downtown Greensboro. Visit nationalfolkfestival.com for a list of stage locations and a complete rundown of the schedule for the festival.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.