Patience is paying off for Kelsey Waldon. Her debut album, 2014’s The Goldmine, recorded with the help of Kickstarter donors and featuring backing vocals from soon-to-be-notable names like Margo Price, Anderson East and Erin Rae, and 2016’s I’ve Got A Way, which landed on NPR host Ken Tucker‘s Top 10 Favorite Albums of that year, caught the ears of one of Waldon’s biggest influences, John Prine, who signed the songwriter to his Oh Boy Records label. Her debut release for Oh Boy, White Noise/White Lines, was released earlier this month and is being hailed as one of the best country releases of the year by those who know this genre way better than I do. (Hey, I’m learning … I no longer think of country music as just songs about pickup trucks and red Solo cups!).
Kelsey Waldon is playing the A&R Music Bar on Wednesday night. Doors are at 7:30pm. You can pick up advance tickets for $10 or at the door, where they are $12.
Before hopping in the tour van for the short drive between Detroit and Cleveland, Kelsey checked in from the road to provide her thoughts about the current state of country music in Nashville and the things she’s learned along the way
For the following things, tell me what stereotypes are true and what are the biggest misconceptions:
The stereotype is that it’s just a country music city and partly that’s true, especially as far as mainstream country goes that’s coming out of there and the underground country scene. It’s also a great rock and roll scene, there’s a jazz scene, a gospel scene. To defy the stereotype, it’s just a city of music, there’s just so much good music coming out of there. Nashville can be cutthroat and competitive, but I think, in my experience, I’ve fallen into the right communities that are very, very, very inspiring. I also think it can be one of the most inspiring places on earth. But I’ve also been through the dark times in Nashville. It’s kind of all those things at once.
What about the stereotypes that are true about country music and the stereotypes that aren’t true?
All these stereotypes, I think a lot of them are true but I also think that they’re not. If you really consider the whole demographic – there’s so many of us that are playing country music – we’re all artists and a lot of artists are singular, we’re not all the same. There’s some of us playing country music the way we dream it should sound. I think there is also a stereotype that country music artists are not progressive or maybe everybody is, dare I say, racist and homophobic. I think that’s very untrue, there’s so many of us that are fighting for it to not be that way and to not seem that way. I think country music is a lot more open minded than people think. I think it depends on the artist. Stereotypes, sometimes there is truth but it’s a whole lot bigger than that. As someone who considers themselves, at least at heart, a country music artist, whatever happens in that realm for me starts purely country.
Sometimes I think people haven’t heard the right country music, you know? I love when people come up to me and say, “I’m not one to like country music, I didn’t even think I liked it but I love your music”. That just comes from me wanting to make good music. I just want to make good art and write good songs. I think, in that way, it becomes universal, at least that’s what we hope for. There’s a lot of us trying to shine a good light on country music.
Okay, the last one … what about the stereotypes and misconceptions about touring?
A lot of us are on different paths in our career and I think that an independent artist like myself, even independent on a label, it’s still hard. From time to time, especially when we headline some of these club dates, we don’t know … one night it might be a hundred people or more, the next night it might be 10. That’s fine, that’s just because it’s really early on in this process. We play for whoever is there. It doesn’t bother me. We want the room to be full, absolutely, and we’re starting to see that more and more which is amazing because I’ve been touring for a long time. I know how it feels for it to be lonesome and it’s amazing to see it grow, the way it is now.
The reality and the misconceptions are that some people – even your peers – think “Oh, you have it made.” It’s like, I’m still surviving the dream. I’m not bartending any more, this is what I do for a job, and, yes, to even make it this far is a huge accomplishment, but you still have so much work to do when you’re at the point where I’m at. People think you’ve got it made or it’s just one big party too. There are people all the time who say, “It must be so fun to do what you do.” It is fun, I can’t complain about singing every night, but there’s sacrifices. I’m away from people I love at home, I don’t get to see them a lot. You open yourself up to strangers. There’s just a lot of sacrifices and we don’t get to see a lot of the cities we’re in. We only see the clubs. It’s still a lot of hard work and it’s not one big party.
I’m super lucky I love my band, I love my crew, because that’s who we’re with, that’s who I see every day. I always say that you better love the people you’re out there with because you’re not going to see a lot of your folks at home and stuff like that. I think it’s more of a sacrifice than people realize. It’s the path I’ve chosen or, as I say, the one that’s chosen me. I will say, touring you get to meet the people that like your music in real time instead of just the internet and Instagram comments or something like that. You really get to connect and see people’s reactions in real time. That’s what it’s all about, I feel like I’m building this brick by brick.
You talked about community. As an outsider looking through social media and the different artists you interact with or that tag you in posts, in my head I have this vision of a Nashville gang of musicians you hang out with. Is that real? Is there a community of musicians you hang out with or just something I’m imagining?
We are really good friends. Erin Rae is one of my best friends ever. We talk every day. We don’t get to see each other a lot anymore – that’s the thing about all of us, we don’t get to see each other a lot because we’re all on town, all the time. We do try to hang when we’re back. Erin Rae, Margo Price, Lilly Hiatt, even Lillie Mae, I’ve known her family forever, Caroline Spence, Michaela Anne, all those guys are my good friends. Even my Kentucky crew – Tyler Childers, Senora May, John R Miller, all those guys. I consider them all family.
The Kentucky music scene and the Nashville scene intertwined, I’ve been super lucky to be involved in that community, especially the ladies. Between Lilly and Erin, Caroline and Michaela and Margo, they’ve all been so supportive. They are always there to lift you up. People like Erin and I, we’re at similar levels in our careers. We discuss a lot of things that frustrate us and also make us very happy. It’s nice to have that ear for pow wow purposes. So, yeah, we do actually hang out.
I also saw that you have done some work with Anderson East. What was that experience like?
That was before Mike … before any of those Anderson East records … I just knew him as Mike. He’s still a great friend of mine. I saw him recently at a Martin Guitar event, they revealed the Johnny Cash guitar and he was there. I hadn’t seen him in forever. It was great, I was super young then, that was at least 9 years ago now that we did that record. We had a super small budget, I had raised about $5,000 to get it done. We went in there for 2 days, that was the first real album I made. Everything I’ve done has been a pure experience but that one in particular, there were no expectations, nobody really knew who I was. I was just trying to make the best record I could and my friend Mike Rinne and, of course, Anderson East, helped me make that. We made it at his old studio, he doesn’t live there any more. It was a studio that was in his house, it was called Farmland Studio. We used to have fires and stuff over there. Mike Anderson was always very supportive and still is.
Did you have a mentor or somebody who sat down and gave you some tips and tricks before you went on your first tour?
I’ve had a couple of mentors, not particularly about touring in the beginning. In the beginning, I learned a lot by myself and from just doing it. I’m lucky to have a tour manager now but I did not have that years ago. The same with my records. I’m kind of thankful I did everything independently because I was really able to have a grasp around that, especially when somebody came along. I kind of already knew how it was supposed to work. I’ve just had so many learning curves through different tours. I always say this, but, doing these things in real time is how I really learn.
I had mentors in the beginning, like Tamara Saviano, not necessarily about touring, she was the first person to tell me I need a team, I need a publicist, things that I didn’t even realize. She was Kris Kristofferson’s manager, Guy Clark’s manager, those guys are my heroes. I learned a lot from just being around her.
There are certain tours we were able to do 3 or 4 years ago, I’d say the first legit person we went on a run with was Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives. That was the first time I toured with a monitor crew. They taught me so much. That was a big learning curve on the road for all of us in the band.
My manager, Mark, has given me so much recent insight about business and accounting, things that a lot of people don’t think about but the business side of it has to exist.
I’ve been lucky for all those people. I don’t think there is any way you can learn to do any of this without experiencing some failures. There’s going to be some successes too. There’s no blueprint.
If I were to look at your phone right now and open Spotify, what song would I see that you listened to most recently?
I had to make a Spotify playlist for Oh Boy yesterday. I guess they are doing some Spotify thing, like the stuff we listen to in the van. I made a 95-song playlist, I was like, “Don’t get me started”. It opened a can of worms. I’m not sure, I know one of them was called “The Road” by Danny O’Keefe. That was the first song on the playlist. The playlist is called Hillbilly Highway (Van Jams), it was named after a Steve Earle song. Those are the songs I listened to, but I don’t know if they are the last songs I listened to.
What about podcasts? Anything you listen to on long drives?
The last podcast we listened to on the road was the Cocaine and Rhinestones one by Tyle Coe. It’s awesome.
If you’re not on the road and have some down time at home, where would I most likely run into you?
Hmm. Well, probably nowhere unless I was at my house. I live in Ashland City now, it’s like 35 minutes outside Nashville. We have a little cabin out there so normally I’m just on my back porch resting or working out in my yard. But, if I ever went to town, you might see me at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge or seeing one of my buddies play or maybe the American Legion Hall, maybe the Honky Tonk Tuesdays. I like to go and support, you might see me there if I decide to leave my house.
What can you tell me about the guys in your band?
They’ve been my band, well, as a unit, the newest member we have is a pedal steel player but everybody else has been in the band for 3 years. My bass player Alec has probably been in my band 5 years. This band that is on the road with me, it’s the band that played on my new record. People always say “It sounds just like the record” and I’m like, “Well, it is the record”. It’s a special unit, I’m very lucky to have these guys and I think we’re really lucky to have each other. We’re telepathic at this point. I think we made a real record, the kind of way the records I love have been made, the way records used to be made. I’m real proud of that.