It's been a year since the last time I chatted with Kelsey Waldon, and a lot has happened since. Back then, she was still finishing the follow-up to her 2014 full-length debut, The Goldmine. It was a record full of heartbreak and honky tonk rhythms, which cemented her as one of the most talented new artists in the country realm.
Waldon's sophomore album, I've Got a Way, comes during a renaissance for traditional country music. Fellow Nashville-based artist Margo Price broke out with the Jack White-backed album, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, while recent Tennessee transplant Michaela Anne dove into the sound of old school country with her latest record. Outside of the DIY alt-country scene in Nashville, there's a push for more meaningful and rawer sounding material in the mainstream. If Kelsey Waldon was a newbie to the music industry, it seems like she'd be entering at just the right moment.
In reality, Waldon has been honing her own sound since she was a young girl in Monkey's Eyebrow, Kentucky. After spending the last few years in the Music City, she returned to her hometown to record the video for her defiant lead single, "All By Myself."
"When people hear [Monkey's Eyebrow], they think it's a real goofy name," she explained. By returning to her old stomping grounds, she wanted to show people that the town was more than just a map dot. "I want to embrace all that. I think it's beautiful. In a world right now where people try to make you feel bad for being almost everything - black, muslim, gay, or a real hillbilly - you should be proud of your journey and where you came from."
"All By Myself" in itself is a rollicking and confident track that sets the tone for the rest of the record. "I wanted to [do] something that was anthem-like in a way, but also very encouraging," Waldon says. "At the time, I had so many people that I cared about dealing with issues like anxiety and not really believing in themselves. I wanted it to be empowering, because that power is inside of all of us."
It's easy to hear Waldon's influences in her music. Songs like "Let's Pretend" and "The Heartbreak" could have been deep cuts from her musical hero, Loretta Lynn. Waldon and Lynn seem to share the ability to use the more difficult or taboo moments in life to connect with the listener. Both come from humble beginnings but never forget where they came from, which naturally comes through in their music. Simply put, they are storytellers.
Waldon chose to pay tribute to three more of her musical heroes with her newest project. She recorded incredible unique covers of Bill Monroe's "Travelin' Down This Lonesome Road" and the Gosdin Brothers' "There Must Be A Someone." These are no simple, karaoke-style renditions. She dug deep into each song and completely reworked them, making them almost unrecognizable while still managing to keep their core elements.
"I really had a change of heart by putting cover songs on the record, because I never thought I'd do that," she explained. "I realized that it was such an art in itself. For someone like Willie Nelson, who is an amazing songwriter in his own right, it's a feat in itself to make a song from his friends or someone else his own. It was a nice challenge for me."
What truly pulls together the record is the expert production methods from Michael Rinne and her incredibly tight backing band. Rolling steel guitar keeps the vintage, 1970's style country sound running through each track.
"I wanted it to be very raw and spacious, since that's how all my favorite records sound," Waldon says, crediting the choice to play everything to mic without any added effects for the resulting "old school" country sound.
Although the songs themes vary from heartbreak, defiance and remorse, Waldon's unrelenting honesty is what makes this record feel like a time capsule. It marks a moment of evolution, both personally and musically, that transcends any cliche or sub-genre. It's just great music, pure and simple.
After nearly a year of anticipation, Waldon says she's most excited to get back on the road to share her new material. You can find her full list of upcoming tour dates here.
I've Got a Way is available Aug. 12.