- By Alan Richard
KELSEY WALDON'S FREEDOM SONGS
Updated: Mar 20, 2021
Kelsey Waldon was on a tour of the world, singing songs from her first album for John Prine’s record label, 2019's White Noise, White Lines, when she got the word.
Her band was set to join Prine for shows in Belgium and the Netherlands when she learned the legendary singer-songwriter was going to home to Nashville for a hip replacement instead. Waldon headed back to Tennessee, too.
“The world turned upside down after that.” Waldon said.
Weeks later, Prine came down with the coronavirus. He died in April, crushing Waldon and everyone who knew him and appreciated his lyrical brilliance and good humor.
“Honestly, his death taught me a lot,” Waldon told SoulCountry. “Go let your freak-flag fly. Go be yourself. Do your thing. That’s what he would have wanted me to do.”
Not only did Waldon lose a friend and mentor, but all touring stopped. Since then, Waldon has mostly been stuck at the cabin-like home she shares with her musician partner, Justin Francis, in Ashland City, a hilly little town just northwest of Nashville that reminds her of the rural community of Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky, where she grew up.
“A lot of things got really quiet for a lot of important issues to get louder,” Waldon said. “In this part of my life right now I’m still figuring out a lot of stuff out for myself,” she said. “I’m like four months sober. That was a big change for me. The only reason I’m saying that is because it is a big change.”
“It’s OK to be wrong. It’s OK to change your mind,” she added. “We’re all recovering from something.”
During the time off, Waldon also found herself inspired by the protests of police brutality and racial inequality in America. She chose some of her favorite civil rights-focused songs and called on several of Nashville’s best singer-songwriters of color to help her record them—Kyshona Armstrong, Devon Gilfillian, Adia Victoria and other local artists.
Waldon and friends gathered at Ronnie’s Place, the charming old studio on Music Row formerly owned by soulful country singer Milsap himself, Roy Orbison and others.
The result is the seven-song collection, They’ll Never Keep Us Down, released in November 2020 as a benefit for Waldon’s chosen political causes, Hood to the Holler and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.
“My music in general has always been semi-politically charged,” Waldon said.
Peace and understanding
It’s easy to see why Prine saw a kindred songwriting spirit in Waldon. Her down-home phrasing belies complex stories of rough-and-tumble family life, a rejection of tradition, and also a longing for home.
Unlike many of her own songs, Waldon’s covers of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Hazel Dickens and others aren’t autobiographical. But the performances stand as some of her most powerful yet, blending her Kentucky accent and bluegrass-influenced melodies with the soulful voices of her friends and a slight rock ‘n roll sneer.
The highlight is Waldon’s daring take on Nina Simone’s brash, brilliant protest classic. “Mississippi Goddamn,” with Rachel Baiman's banjo and fiddle giving the performance roots. Waldon sings the first verse:
“Alabama’s got me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
and everybody knows about Mississippi, goddamn.”
Kyshona Armstrong takes the next verses with gospel volume, which still sound remarkably current:
“Hound dogs on my trail
Schoolchildren sitting in jail
Black cat across my path
I think everyday’s gonna be my last.”
Then it’s back to Waldon:
“So Lord, have mercy on this land of mine
We’re all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayers.”
On the word “prayers,” Waldon’s accent slips out, turning two syllables into one. Her phrasing contrasts and blends with her partners on the song.
“All I want is equality for my sisters, my brothers, my people and me,” she sings.
Finally, the three singers blaze through the final verse:
Adia Victoria: You don’t have to live next me
Kyshona: Just give me my equality…
Waldon: For everybody knows about Mississippi
Adia Victoria: Everybody knows about Alabama
Kyshona: Everybody knows about Mississippi
“God…da-yum,” Waldon blurts with a disgusted, defiant twang.
In “mainstream country, you hear so many cliched Southern stories, but we don’t hear Black stories. We don’t hear Black women’s stories,” Waldon said. “It was a way for me to lift those stories up, but also to show support and solidarity to my Black peers, my Black friends and artists.”
To Waldon’s surprise, some listeners criticized her decision to cover the song as a white singer in a volatile era. Some younger fans hadn’t heard the song before.
“A lot of people love it, and there’s people who think I shouldn’t have done it… just because Nina, well, she is untouchable,” Waldon said. “It was really intimidating… and honestly that where Kyshona and Adia came in.”
“It clearly struck a nerve with a lot of people and I’m happy ‘cause that’s what I want,” she said.
“I’ve always been enamored with the fact that Nina, she was from Appalachia,” Waldon said of Simone, born in Tryon, North Carolina. “She has mountain-girl roots and so do Kyshona and Adia. The work that Adia is doing—both of them are doing—with their own art, their own work, is very special. It’s telling another story of the South.”
Waldon first met Kyshona, who performs using only her first name, through singer-songwriter Erin Rae at a concert by women songwriters held at a museum in Louisville, Kentucky. They hung out at the bar one night but hadn’t been in touch since.
For her part, Kyshona told SoulCountry that she remembers well the night she and Adia Victoria recorded their parts: “The vibe of it is powerful, but creepy and sticky and powerful again. It felt so good, I think I cried.”
“I’m grateful for Kelsey in using her platform to not only bring Nina Simone’s voice back, but also to highlight the voices of her fellow Black singer-songwriters here in Nashville that people may not always know about,” Kyshona said.
The lyrics remain so powerful and relevant. “Here we are today and every word of it is still relevant,” Kyshona added. “What is wrong with us?”
Power to the People
Kyshona also adds passionate backing vocals on Waldon’s cover of Neil Young’s “Ohio.” The 1970 original was released just weeks after the killings of Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War. Devon Gilfillian, Erin Rae and Vickie Vaughn also sing backup.
On Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” Waldon sings the opening verses acapella, recalling a Southern gospel and old-time bluegrass harmonies, with Nashville country-and-bluegrass singer and friend Vaughn, who shares Waldon’s Kentucky roots.
The lead-off track from Waldon is “The Law Is for Protection of the People,” Kris Kristofferson’s satirical rip on the police—and society—for roughing up protestors and hippies. Waldon's version has a touch of country-blues, like Waylon Jennings might have done it, decorated by Brett Resnick's steel guitar.
Waldon said she loves Kristofferson’s own version of the song and Bobby Bare’s from 1969. Her performance is a statement about the protests around police brutality and criminal justice.
“Sometimes the very people that are supposed to protect us, they don’t,” she said. “At this point, we cannot truly in our hearts say there is not something wrong.”
“So many of my country heroes really did have something to say,” Waldon said. “It almost feels like country music—a genre that I’ve loved my whole life—has kind of moved away from being for the underdog, shall I say, or like a voice for the downtrodden.
“In a way, that was me bringing that spirit back.”
The album’s title cut is bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens’ 1976 ode to union organizing in coal mining country, pushing for better wages and safer conditions. Waldon handles it as straight-up bluegrass, which only compliments the country and soul influences that flow through the album.
“I’ve been listening to Hazel Dickens probably since I was like 15 or 16,” Waldon said. “A lot of people don’t know her. She really set a standard at the time, especially in the bluegrass world… There were a lot of people that weren’t writing relevant bluegrass albums… kind of in the way Loretta Lynn was doing.”
Dickens and another bold bluegrass artist, Alice Gerrard, were involved in workers’ solidarity movements in Appalachia. Waldon counts them as heroes.
“They were writing from a woman’s perspective, a woman coalminers’ perspective, and just the whole Appalachian” perspective,” she said. “I kind of wanted to do it because I feel like how really punk-rock so much of bluegrass and country really is.
“The spirit of that—and where that is charged from is, like, rock n’ roll,” she said.
For the rousing closer, the jazz spiritual “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” popularized by Nina Simone, Waldon enlisted singer Devon Gilfillian to join her. The two Nashville musicians have known each other for years, and drummer Nate Felty plays in both artists’ bands.
The performance lets Waldon's band stretch out. Resnick's beautiful steel guitar solo joins Adam Duran on guitar to create a nice hook, marrying up with Micah Hulscher's piano and church-organ.
“We decided we were only going to do seven songs, and I felt like there needed to be one tune that just felt like it was kind of like the ‘I Saw the Light’ of the album,” Waldon said. “I really like the version I heard by Levon Helm.”
Gilfillian recalled first seeing Waldon perform at a music festival he also was playing in Wisconsin. He realized Waldon is a “badass, like a Dolly, Janis” combination, he told SoulCountry in a separate interview (Look for our feature on Gilfillian soon.)
A new road ahead
Then there’s Waldon’s cover of John Prine’s early classic, “Sam Stone,” from his self-titled 1971 debut album. The song is about a veteran’s sad welcome home from Vietnam, turning to drugs to kill his despair:
“And Sam, he took to stealing When he got that empty feeling For a hundred-dollar habit without overtime
And the gold roared through his veins Like a thousand railroad trains And eased his mind in the hours that he chose While the kids ran around wearin' other peoples' clothes.”
That’s been “one of my favorite tunes (of his) for a really, really long time,” Waldon said. “I can’t believe that’s one of the first songs he got up to the mike to sing.”
For Waldon, the song hearkens back to her native Kentucky, where many rural areas have been hard-hit by the opioid epidemic, impacting the lives of many veterans and families across the region.
It’s those circumstances in which “pills kind of get pushed,” she said. “There are so many reasons why like some people just want to get out” of rural areas—and often turn to military service. “You can work at the McDonald’s or go to the Army, you know?”
In Waldon’s time with Prine, she saw up close how much Prine loved being on stage.
“John Prine was one of the first albums I ever owned 15 or 16,” Waldon said. “That was one reason I wanted to move to Nashville, honestly. Because I knew people like John Prine lived there and Emmylou Harris lived there.
“They always say, never meet your heroes,” she said. “If you ever met John Prine, you would definitely disagree with that statement.”
Like any real troubadour, Waldon herself misses the road. “Performing for me was such kind of a lane of release to me. It was almost like the only thing we artists do that almost makes you feel like you have a real job. It almost feels like you’re clocking in,” she said.
“You can write ‘em and sing ‘em, but then you gotta have the show,” she said.
As Waldon embarks on journeys ahead, the edge-of-the-country setting of Ashland City has served her well during this time off the road, getting clean and even learning a little clawhammer-style banjo.
“We love living out here,” she said. “It reminds me a little more of home (in Kentucky) and a little more peace and quiet” with only the couple’s chickens and dogs around.
Waldon stepped onto the Grand Ole Opry stage in January and performed her melodic version of “Sam Stone”—a provocative choice, perhaps, for a traditional setting.
“I guess I got away with singing it,” she said. “They couldn’t stop me.”