It’s been nine years since Kelsey Waldon left her home in rural Western Kentucky to pursue a career in Music City. She’s gained a hard-earned following among country traditionalists since, graduating from playing honky tonks around town to selling out classic bluegrass joints such as the Station Inn and releasing two albums, 2014’s The Gold Mine and 2016’s I’ve Got a Way. Her no-nonsense country sound and wry lyrics eventually caught the interest of another artist with Bluegrass State roots—John Prine. The legendary songwriter recently announced that the 31-year-old Waldon would be joining the roster at his record label, Oh Boy, the first new artist signed to the label in fifteen years. “It’s meant a whole lot to me,” Waldon says. “I’ve known Oh Boy since I was around sixteen years old and first started collecting vinyl. A friend gave me [Prine’s 1971] self-titled album, and when I dropped the needle on that first song, ‘Illegal Smile,’ I heard my country and bluegrass upbringing, heard John bring those two worlds together for me.”
Waldon’s new album on Oh Boy, White Noise, White Lines, will be released this October, and look for a number of upcoming tour dates with Prine. In the meantime, Garden & Gun is proud to exclusively premiere the album’s first single, “Anyhow.” Beginning with lively strumming and building to a steel-guitar-backed declaration of self-sufficiency, the song is a fitting first taste of an album that should firmly establish Waldon as one of classic country’s rising torchbearers.
Stream “Anyhow” below, and read our interview with Waldon about the inspiration for the song, her childhood in rural Kentucky, and learning to trust her own voice.
Tell me about where you grew up.
I’m from Ballard County. We Kentuckians love our counties—we’re more likely to tell you the county we’re from than the town—but the actual name of my town is Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky. I didn’t realize the name was anything unusual until I moved out. And I still don’t think it’s weird—or I guess I think it’s wonderfully weird. We grew up in the bottomlands, right between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. It’s flood country down there. We used to boat into our house when the water would come up, and we’d get water moccasins inside sometimes, which was, uh… not always fun. [Laughs] But we were river kids. My dad owned a hunting lodge—he still does—and he would flood out the land to hunt ducks. He’d go bass fishing and hunt deer, of course, and during the summer he farms. So I grew up in an incredibly rural area, which I loved, and I live out in the country again now, outside of Nashville.
Do you hunt, too?
I went turkey hunting with my dad recently, but the thing I still mostly do is fish, and I love to grow my garden. I do respect hunting. For someone like my dad, who is a big member of the Wildlife Federation, it’s also about conserving populations, keeping them in balance. He was also into bow hunting, and there’s an art to that, a patience. I guess you could say I’ve got a great respect for learning how to sustain yourself on your own.
“Anyhow,” along with plenty of other moments on this album, addresses the value in making your own way, despite obstacles. How did that emerge as a theme?
Kentucky resilience and independence is certainly in my stock. My great-grandmother always told me to plow my own row, which is a great way to say it. Maybe it’s my little kind of hillbilly Zen, but the song is about self-awareness, trusting the process, and embracing yourself and who you are—even if it doesn’t fit the mold. In a way, it’s also about not giving up. Around the time I wrote “Anyhow,” I’d made my debut on the Opry, and we’d sold out the Station Inn in Nashville. But when we would drive down to Houston, Texas, maybe five people would show up [at our shows]. It’s a wild journey that we’re on, and it’s really easy to get discouraged. I hear it all the time from my peers, too: What am I doing wrong? The truth is, you’re not doing anything wrong. Know what you have, and then just keep your blinders on, because eventually, the right people find the things that are good and pure.
You’ve been performing in Nashville for years. What was the biggest adjustment when you first moved to town?
I felt like I was straight-off-the-farm when I came to Nashville. The biggest challenge for me was buckling down and taking criticism. You have to let your ass get kicked, for lack of better words. There are a lot of broken dreams here, and sometimes there can be unhealthy competition or negativity. But I think it challenged me to write better songs and to express my whole self without being afraid of whatever that entails. This new record is probably the most self-reflective record I’ve made so far, and I’m not done yet. I know there are still a lot of records in me.
You close the album with a cover, your take on Ola Belle Reed’s “My Epitaph.” Why that song?
Ola Belle is one of my favorite mountain singers. Ending with “My Epitaph” felt like it rounded out the album. It’s anything I would ever have to say: Let’s do things now. Live in the moment. Let’s not wait until we’re all gone to express what matters, to be kind to each other. I had my Ola Belle Reed CD in the van when we were on the road two or three summers ago, driving through Montana when all the wildfires were happening, and I’ll never forget it. There was a weird glow in the sky and sparks everywhere—it almost looked foggy because the wildfire smoke was coming off the woods. I had been having one of my moments: I was driving the guys, everybody was asleep, and I was like, “What am I doing? What am I doing…with my life?” [Laughs] And then that song came on, and it gave me such a calming presence. It made me think, “Wow. I don’t care if I die tomorrow. This is what I was meant to do.”
White Noise, White Lines will be released on October 4.