NOTE: Intermingled with the sorrow over the passing of John Prine is a sense of hope and renewal carried by the countless number of musicians he inspired. One of those is Ballard County native Kelsey Waldon, a personal friend of Mr. Prine. Here’s our article on Kelsey and her work with John.
In February, hometown musician Kelsey Waldon found herself on her first live tour of the United Kingdom, headlining a show in London. It could seem like there would be a bit of culture shock, going from Monkey’s Eyebrow in Ballard County to the land of monarchs, high tea, and a frenzied passion for British football. But even though Kelsey hasn’t performed in the UK before, she’s been traveling far and wide with her music for quite some time. And there’s one thing she’s learned: people are the same everywhere you go. They share many of the same feelings—joys, loves, fears—which makes the world ready for her style of down-home, personal country music.
In the 2011 summer music issue of Paducah Life Magazine, we introduced you to Kelsey, the 2006 Ballard County High School graduate who had just left home to pursue a career in songwriting. Like with many successful songwriters before her, inspiration began with the Beatles. “When a friend let me borrow Rubber Soul, I knew for sure I wanted to make music,” she said. Kelsey then immersed herself in all forms of Americana music. She added, “Blues, folk, rock—it doesn’t matter to me as long as it has those deep roots. I love rootsy songwriting.”
Kelsey’s journey led her to Nashville where she surrounded herself with likeminded musicians. There, she honed her craft, self-releasing four albums between 2011 and 2016. Her songs, deeply rooted in the Americana country she’d come to love, reflected her life, influences, and the culture of Kentucky and the south. And they struck a chord with fans of country music who wanted new music with more of a bite than the top hits of the day.
By the time she released her album I’ve Got a Way in 2016, she’d attracted the attention of media outlets such as Rolling Stone Magazine, NPR, and Billboard. I’ve Got a Way reflected the sound of the country outlaw movement of the 1970s. On the album, Kelsey evoked the spirit of artists such as Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette, and others, crafting a gritty, honky-tonk aura that is familiar but purely hers. She mastered the genre with songs that would sound natural in a backroad, honky-tonk bar where boots kick up dirt on a rustic wood floor as they dance their cares away on a Saturday night. There are also shining, sentimental moments where Kelsey allows her voice to be vulnerable yet strong, revealing a deep, reflective heart.
Beyond the media attention, Kelsey also caught the ear of legendary singer/songwriter John Prine. Prine, who was recently inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and also won the Lifetime Achievement Grammy was one of several singers in the early 70s to earn the moniker of the “next Bob Dylan.” He founded his own record label, Oh Boy Records in 1984. In addition to his music, Prine worked with other artists over the years through Oh Boy. But in the past 15 years, he had not signed any new artists. At a May Grand Ole Opry appearance, Prine announced that Kelsey (the girl from Monkey’s Eyebrow) would be recording her next album for Oh Boy. Kelsey then joined him on stage to sing two Prine songs, “Unwed Fathers” and “Paradise.”
“I am bursting with pride to have Kelsey Waldon recording for Oh Boy Records,” said Prine. “Her music continues an important arc of traditional folk and country music. I love Kelsey’s singing—her voice is one of the more authentic country voices I’ve heard in a long time. I’m looking forward to all the shows we’ll be performing.”
“It’s hard for me to put into words what it truly means to me to be signed to Oh Boy Records,” Kelsey said. “To have someone like John, who I have looked up to my whole life, who I have set my songwriting standards after and my general music-making standards after, to have someone like him endorse my music and care enough about it to make sure it reaches a wider audience…that means everything.”
Kelsey supported Prine as an opener for some of his continued Tree of Forgiveness tour dates including an appearance with Prine at Bonnaroo. Kelsey also performed at Prine’s memorable July “hometown” show dubbed “A Night in Paradise” in Central City, Kentucky, which is where Prine’s parents and grandparents grew up.
Kelsey also went to work in the studio, cutting tracks for the album White Noise/White Lines. The first single, “Anyhow,” stayed true to Kelsey’s style. The song speaks of the difficulties and unknowns of life while plugging away anyhow, learning to make one’s own sun shine in spite of the tribulations that beset us all. White Noise/White Lines earned critical and public praise, establishing Kelsey as a leader at the forefront of a new country movement.
As she has done since our interview in 2011, Kelsey had stayed true to herself, her roots, and her love for music. Now, she is reaping the benefits, winning new audiences around the world.