American Routes Shortcuts: Kelsey Waldon
Country singer Kelsey Waldon grew up in the Ohio River bottoms of Ballard County, Kentucky, a place called “Monkey’s Eyebrow,” where her father runs a hunting lodge and her mother’s family has been farming for generations. Kelsey started writing songs at a young age, went to Nashville at nineteen, played in bars, studied songwriting and later released noted albums that landed her on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. It was there with the now late songman John Prine that she agreed to join his label, Oh Boy Records, in 2019, the first artist Prine had signed in fifteen years. Kelsey counts John as a mentor, but remembers the first encounter with music came from her nanny.
Kelsey Waldon: I had a lady that used to keep us growing up. We called her our nanny. She was the leader of her church, the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, and she was like the music leader there. Anyway, she taught me how to read music and play piano–“piana”–that's how my granny would say it. Heard the Beatles and Bob Dylan, and I picked up the guitar, and yeah I mean, after that, it was pretty much the rest was history. I just, I don't know, I quit like every sport, I quit pretty much everything I was doing. I was like in marching band, and I quit that. I was all about my guitar and just writing songs, and, you know, it was kind of a weird thing, you know, I always wanted to do what I'm doing now, and it was not really that supported to be quite honest. I mean it was by my mom, my mom and my granny. The women in my family I feel like were very supportive. My dad is, he's very proud, and my whole family is, but I do feel like a lot of people didn't get it.
Nick Spitzer: Sometimes when you're being, you know, reflective and poetic in school, you know, that casts you as being weird, you know?
KW: For sure. Yeah.
NS: <Laugh> But by the same token, it seems to me that when there's trouble in your life, people do turn to words. They turn to words that are emotional and help them work through things. Even if they can't be unscrambled, sometimes just stating them is a form of, you know, self-healing.
KW: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I think I always, you know, I think when I started writing songs, I definitely was just trying to make sense of the world around me for sure. I mean, I don't, it's hard to explain. I mean, I just, I just started writing. I mean, I have all these journals of my great-grandmother’s that she kept, you know, during the Great Depression, and she worked at like a canning factory for a long time, and, you know, her and my great granddaddy farmed and raised tobacco. She kept all these journals, and so maybe it was just in my blood.
NS: Just listening to all your songs and the different conflicts in them, as well as resolutions and hopes and also sorrows is that you did grow up, I mean, in a family that's what, on one side, at least, ten generations on the land. I mean, I think it's tough for people to grow up and reconcile the long history of somewhere doing something– tobacco, cattle farming–with the new lives that are coming in over the radio and television, whether it's Dylan or Neil Young or Joan Baez or whatever. But it seems to me that you sort of gracefully dealt with that or still do to some extent. What's great about home, but what's great about a wider world.
KW: Yeah. I mean, I saw myself and all those artists, and I was raised on bluegrass and country music, but, you know, I also like have the earliest memories of hearing Hank Jr. and like Lynyrd Skynyrd and like classic rock, you know, Pink Floyd, like from like, you know, my mom's radio and even just, you know, being at the age when like soundtracks like O Brother, Where Art Thou? came out and Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose, it's kind of just like being like–Johnny Cash, American Recordings. I mean, all those came out, you know, when I was in high school, and that was kind of when I was just like, “Oh, this is rock and roll.” You know, I can be proud of who I am. I can be proud of where I'm from, and I can also have a voice to say, you know, whatever I need to say. And I think definitely hearing, you know, John's, you know, John Prine's first record, I mean that really opened up a world for me because that was kind of like all my worlds colliding and then like with relevant songwriting. So that really kind of clicked.
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