When I call up Kelsey Waldon to talk about her new record White Noise, White Lines, she’s sitting on the front porch of her home in rural Davidson County, Tenn., nestled along the Cumberland River outside Nashville. It’s less than two hours from her hometown of Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ky., (that’s the town’s real name!) where her family still resides. I hear the sound of cicadas and her voice—and absolutely nothing else.
“It’s pretty quiet at night,” she says. “There’s still some development, but there’s no barista parlors yet. Our neighbor has a hog. It’s cool.”
The native Kentuckian lived in Nashville proper for about eight years before she and her partner decided to move farther out, where you can see “the bluffs and the hills out here.” And that’s not the only big change she’s experienced recently. In May, Waldon became the first new artist to sign to John Prine’s Oh Boy Records in 15 years. The label will release her forthcoming third studio album, White Noise, White Lines, on Oct. 4. But the story began decades ago, when a 16-year-old Waldon copped a vinyl copy of John Prine for her record collection. Then, last year, she met Prine and his wife Fiona. They played some shows together and struck up a friendship, which led to the label’s “completely organic” decision to release the album. Waldon has had a slow-burning career, playing opening gigs for fellow Kentuckians like Tyler Childers and touring across the country, and it seems like her hustling is about to pay off with the arrival of White Noise, White Lines. On the record, Waldon stuns with classic country arrangements and blue-collar tales. It’s easily the best songwriting of her career.
Waldon wrote the album’s title track circa 2017 when she was home at her dad’s hunting lodge in Ballard County, Ky. (aka Monkeys Eyebrow). It begins like a classic country rocker, with Waldon using her characteristically vivid lyrics to paint a picture of some hot Kentucky summer: “Took a little run on a red trail getaway / Let it take me where it wants to let me go / Black snake crawling through the soybean summertime / It’s hotter than a child should ever know.” But it transforms into something decidedly more questioning, with Waldon repeating the line “Only here for a moment then we’re gone” before it concludes with recordings of a chant delivered by friends in the Chickasaw Nation, who were performing a ceremony and songs at the nearby Wickliffe Mounds that same weekend. Hear the entire story about the making of the existential song in an exclusive behind-the-scenes video, which you can watch below, accompanied by a special acoustic version of the song.
“I wanted the whole song to kind of feel like an experience, so we just decided to put that at the end and I thought it turned out really good,” Waldon tells Paste.
Again, you can watch the behind-the-scenes video below, and listen to “White Noise, White Lines” right here. Then read the rest of our conversation with Waldon, which has been edited for length, further down. If you like what you hear, pre-order White Noise, White Lines right here.
Paste: How much of your music is inspired by your upbringing in Kentucky?
Waldon: Being raised as a Kentuckian, it’s been a huge influence, even from just the beginning as a child, looking up to so many of my heroes and a lot of my favorite musicians that did happen to come from Kentucky. It’s just very natural for me. I also feel like our region of the world can kind of be misunderstood by people sometimes. So that’s another part of why I do what I do. It’s all very organic and natural. I don’t mean for it to be that way, but the Kentucky inspiration is just there. It’ll probably always be there. Country music for me, it’s like no matter what shape or form any of my music takes, country’s always gonna be there. I can’t really flip that switch off.
Who are some of those artists you grew up listening to?
When I was little, I loved Patty Loveless, and in high school I started getting into like Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs and all that stuff. Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline—my granny loved all that stuff. She would always play Willy 102, the classic country station, up on her eight-track console. It’d be playing in the sunroom all the time. But when I really started writing songs, when I got really digging deep in high school, it was like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Neil Young, Tom Petty. I just loved it all. My dad always to listened classic rock, so he always had like Led Zeppelin on in the truck, or Hank Jr. And obviously being raised in church, I heard a lot of gospel music as well. But I probably didn’t really take songwriting seriously until I heard The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan when I was 14. And after that when I heard Neil Young I realized I kind of only hit the surface of country music. I mean, after that I kind of spun back around and really dug deep into obscure vinyl and got to be a real freak about it.
What drew you to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan?
I keep saying that this record feels like my Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It felt like Bob hadn’t really arrived [until] that one to me, even though the other ones were awesome, and that’s kind of how I feel about my new record. It was mostly an acoustic record, and that was like his first really heavy-hitting songs. I think I was just like, “Wow, songs can really make a difference, they can really change people.” I also obviously admired his attitude and his willingness to just follow his muse, and it was a really big inspiration to me at the time as a young kid. I’d never really heard anything like that. And there certainly wasn’t anyone in my high school listening to it at the time.
Can you tell me more about the inspiration for the album’s title track, “White Noise, White Lines”?
So I traveled down to Monkeys Eyebrow, and I actually went back to this ceremony that was happening at Wickliffe Mounds. It’s like a Native American burial mound protected now by the Kentucky State Parks, and some members of the Chickasaw Nation from Oklahoma were coming back to visit. But I went down there and basically just had this weekend that I really needed, like an existential affirming-my-existence-kind-of-thing. ‘Cause essentially the song’s really about letting go. And this was before we even knew there was gonna be a home for the record. I was at this really weird point in my career, but it was just one of those weekends that rooted me, just made me feel like everything is going to be OK. No matter what happens, it’s gonna be alright.
Some people would say, “Let go and let God,” but we have to trust in this process, and we have to trust that the universe works out in its perfect way. And the members of the Chickasaw Nation and my dad and everybody certainly helped that weekend. And the solar eclipse happened that weekend too, so that blew a lot of people’s minds. You see this thing happening in space and you’re just like, “Wow, we are so small, compared to what is going on.” The world still turns no matter what our worries are.
How does it feel to be the first person in 15 years to get signed to Oh Boy? Is the pressure on?
Well it feels amazing to be first person signed in 15 years. I’m not even really sure that if I knew at first, how important and special that would be. Oh Boy was certainly waiting for the right time and the right person, which means a lot to me. John is someone I didn’t mention earlier, but I actually had John’s first self-titled vinyl record. When I was 16-years-old, I started collecting vinyl, and I had Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin’s III and John Prine, the one of him with the hay bales. I’ve heard he hates that picture, which is hilarious, but that record, from start to finish, as soon as you drop the needle on that, it’s incredible. That record meant everything to me because it was this relevant songwriting, but then there’s this punk rock attitude too. I was like, “OK, this is what I want to do.” So just even knowing John, that I was going to be signed to his record label decades later, is pretty crazy.