A strong want to perform music for a living is not enough of a requisite to be able to create something that is worthy of an audience, especially when it comes to country music, or at least, country music that is worth listening to. It is the severity of life and the pain that comes from it where the lush expressions of the most compelling and robust songs emanate from. This is the indefinable “soul” some love to reference. And though here in 2022 it almost feels cliché to say it, there is a reason why Kentucky continues to breed the most potent songs and songwriters in this business.
Western Kentucky-native Kelsey Waldon has been positioned right at the top of renown Kentucky songwriters for a solid eight years now, at least in the regards of critics and peers, even if she hasn’t enjoyed the wide popularity of fellow Bluegrass State alum such as Chris Stapleton, Tyler Childers, and Sturgill Simpson. But wide popularity wasn’t Waldon’s primary concern when starting out. As a girl from Western Kentucky, she had something to prove, and simply surviving is a level of success.
In 2016 when Waldon released her second album I’ve Got A Way, she laid it all out right there in the passages of her songs. Her commitment to true country music was strong. After all, her accent was immune to camouflage, and preordained it. But she didn’t want to be just another hokey revivalist, leaning on iconography and outmoded language for appeal. She wouldn’t compromise for anyone either. She wouldn’t be lured by the temptations of labels or managers to augment her sound or approach. She wouldn’t be deterred despite the challenges facing women in the business. She would rather fail her way than succeed someone else’s.
Here she is six years later and now signed to John Prine’s Oh Boy record label, and Kelsey Waldon is still declaring herself No Regular Dog. Time has passed, and quite a few more people know her name, but the challenges of the music business still present themselves, she still has to claw and scratch for everything she gets, and she’s not immune to self-doubt. “A prisoner of my mental cages, my own worst enemy, a product of the gamblin’ with the cards that’s dealt, a survivor of my dreams…” she sings in the album’s opening title track, and later in the song, “Daddy loved his work, I guess I do too.”
That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for a love of making music. Then in the song “Tall and Mighty,” Waldon sings, “Trying to live up to some honky tonk dream, wondering if three chords and the truth still mean the same to me.” It’s this type of brutal honesty, followed by a conviction to see her plan through—and to do it her way—that set the foundation for this album. Would she rather be at home tending a garden? Does she question if making country music is a fruitful living for her and the rest of the world? Probably so.
But the rest of No Regular Dog is dedicated to illustrating why country music is such a better alternative to what those from rural Kentucky may face, whether it’s addiction to methamphetamine, a life of hard labor just to survive, or a servile existence instigated by an early pregnancy. No different than those from the intercity who may lean on hip-hop, country music is a way out of the life rhythms that ensnare so many in rural areas, and no matter what challenges a touring musician may face, they’re nothing to compared to the alternative.
Presenting the alternative is where this album runs your insides through a meat grinder, telling the story of a “Sweet Little Girl” who is sent into the arms of inebriation to tackle the hollow feeling inside where hope once dwelled, or the brother who goes down the wrong path in “History Repeats Itself,” and is now resigned to being a wanted man. Or as Waldon explains in “Tall and Mighty,”
Most of my friends are on methamphetamines
Trying to raise babies in this cold world
Wondering what could have been
Yeah they’re puttin’ in the hours on a river barge
Pushing some freight past a gravel bar…
These are the problems that make the long hauls on the road between gigs, or the anxieties of how many people will be there when you arrive at the venue seem trivial, if not privileged. Still, it’s no life of leisure, and Kelsey Waldon doesn’t make it easy on herself by remaining steadfast to her principles, and not taking the shortcuts. If she’s going to make music, it must have meaning. She doesn’t make it easy for the audience either, serving up heady songs with dense plots that require you to listen intently. Her brand of country is definitely country, but it doesn’t come with any obvious lyrical hooks or catchy riffs to get a honky tonk swaying. It’s not that kind of country.
Perhaps even more reason to enlist the services of Shooter Jennings as producer on this album, to really sink his teeth into selling the natural appeal of Kelsey Waldon’s music, and imbue it with a level of infectiousness otherwise lacking on her previous records. Listeners are still tasked with intently delving into what Waldon is trying to convey, with a greater reward if they do. But Jennings successfully creates a “sound” for Kelsey Waldon that envelops her expressions in more inviting movements, while also respecting that her music must stay inherently Kentucky.
Songs like “Tall and Mighty,” “You Can’t Ever Tell,” and “Backwater Blues” are very country in their sound, while a few other tracks like “Sweet Little Girl” and “History Repeats Itself” come with that bass heavy Outlaw feel. As the album progresses, the songs turn more intimate, with “Season’s Ending” being about the death of a loved one, “Simple As Love” showing a more vulnerable side, and “Progress Again” once again speaking to how hard Kelsey is on herself, constantly assessing and reassessing her worth, resolve, failings, and accomplishments.
The music of Kelsey Waldon will never sell out arenas. It’s too resolute for that. Perhaps that’s an injustice, or a bitter pill to swallow. But the value is still significant, and the commitment she has made to her approach is a valiant one. Assuming an intelligent and intent audience, her mission and goal is more noble, and erudite. It’s to prove that you can do things your way. And even if you don’t succeed to the level of some others, sometimes it’s simply an accomplishment to endure. Because when you’re from rural Kentucky, many of the alternatives are much more dire. Just listen to No Regular Dog, and you will agree.
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