Kelsey Waldon 2024
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen / REK Room Media

Kelsey Waldon Finds Inspiration In What Came Before Her

As Kelsey Waldon sings on Ola Belle Reed’s triumphant “I’ve Endured”, the Kentucky country artist knows these songs have lasted for a reason.

There's Always a Song
Kelsey Waldon
Oh Boy Records / Thirty Tigers
10 May 2024

Singer-songwriter Kelsey Waldon hails from the small town of Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky. She finds inspiration in old-time country music, which has given her self-penned compositions the patina of authenticity. Waldon performs some of her favorite songs from the past in their original styles on her latest album, There’s Always a Song.

Waldon mostly lays down the tracks like one might empty an old trunk full of vintage clothes. She carefully preserves their archival beauty. For the most part, Waldon doesn’t update the words, speed up the delivery, or add contemporary instrumentation. She does add a few minor tweaks to the original material, but on the whole, she presents the songs in an old-fashioned way.

The Kentuckian has a distinctive Appalachian drawl with a nasal inflection. She sounds much older than her 20-something years, in a good way. Kelsey Waldon begins her album singing the traditional ballad “Keep Your Garden Clean”, unaccompanied by any instrument or other voices. It’s a sad song about a fair maiden done wrong by an untrue lover. Waldon’s plaintive voice captures her pain and loneliness. It sets the mood for the material that follows. Not every song deals with unhappiness, but as a general rule old-time country frequently deals with hard times. Music provided consolation for its listeners and practitioners.

Fellow Western Kentuckian S.G. Goodman joins Waldon to great effect on the old Carter Family tune, “Hello Stranger”. Contemporary audiences best know the 1973 cover of the song by Emmylou Harris and Nicolette Larson rather than the original 1937 featuring Mother Maybelle (Carter). Many other artists have offered their renditions. Waldon and Goodman present two versions here that, despite being listed differently (one is labeled a radio edit and is slightly shorter and catchier), are very similar.

“Hello Stranger” is an odd song. It’s an unhappy one about a man going to prison and being separated from his true love, but it is filled with peppy hooks. The lyrics aren’t clear—who is the stranger that gives the song its name—that adds to its mysteriousness. Waldon and Goodman do a nice job of keeping things sprightly without underplaying the essential sadness of the song (i.e., “weeping like a willow / moaning like a dove”). The two voices complement each other as they give each other room to sing and then harmonize as needed.

Margo Price joins Waldon on a rollicking version of the traditional bluegrass number “Travelin’ the Highway Home”. They sing and play it hard and straight, even though the lyrics concern giving up one’s vices and following Jesus. The duo understand the magic of the music and are true believers, at least for the three minutes of the song.

Amanda Shires plays fiddle on the Bill Monroe classic “Uncle Pen”. She lets her instrument “sing” and emphasizes its rhythmic elements. Waldon keeps the pace sprightly without burning down the barn. She knows at heart this is a dance tune. Waldon and Isaac Gibson, the lead singer of 49 Winchester, offer a slower and more earnest take on Ralph Stanley‘s “I Only Exist”, a song about a “broken heart and a tortured mind”.

The eight songs (or nine if one counts the radio edit of “Hello Stranger”) can be dark. Waldon’s heart sounds broken on Doc Watson‘s tale of death separating lovers (“Your Lone Journey”) and Kelsey Waldon’s a capella version of Hazel Dickens’ plea for freedom (“Pretty Bird”). But as Waldon sings on Ola Belle Reed’s triumphant “I’ve Endured”, the Kentucky woman knows these songs have lasted for a reason.

RATING 8 / 10