‘Like the hands of God touching you’: Kelsey Waldon Talks New Album, Hank Williams Songs & the Legacy of John Prine

In Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning”, the speaker comes to the realization that “Death is the mother of beauty,” which is one of the most satisfying and comforting reconciliations of mortality that I’ve encountered. According to Stevens, we need death and its valleys to truly appreciate life. If life were “imperishable bliss”– say, our favorite song on repeat, our love forever at our side– we’d grow complacent, if not bored, indifferent, or eventually cold. Through the inevitability of loss, we find purpose, gratitude, maybe even grace.

A similar theme courses throughout Kelsey Waldon’s latest record, No Regular Dog. Produced by Shooter Jennings, it’s an album born of loss and uncertainty. Like the rest of us, she’s weathered the tumult of the pandemic and social upheaval of the last few years, but she’s also suffered the loss of her friend and mentor John Prine, the beyond-legendary singer-songwriter who passed away in 2020. Prine’s music remains instantly personable– listeners feel as if he is singing to them, for them– but to Waldon, he was indeed family.

No Regular Dog is Waldon’s measured eulogy not only for Prine but also for the world we’ve lost. It’s also a cause for celebration, a record of having survived. No doubt, the album’s centerpiece is Waldon’s tribute to Prine– “Season’s Ending”– but the rest of the record is a collection of fight songs– most powerfully “Tall and Mighty”, “You Can’t Ever Tell”, and the title track– that find life after defeat.

CF- There’s a lot of weight to this album, between COVID, the loss of family and friends, including Joh Prine, not to mention the social and political unrest that looms over us. Was it overwhelming trying to write with all of this going on?

KW- I think it’s a little bit of everything all the time, honestly. As an artist, I feel like I probably wouldn’t be relevant if I didn’t notice what was going on with the world around me. That’s just a natural thing; I’m not trying to tell anyone how to feel, but I’ve got to sing how I feel. There are things on my heart that I need to express honestly, just so I don’t go absolutely insane. It’s hard for me to know where to put my energy sometimes, so I have to put it in the songwriting. I have to put it into my album because that’s what I’ve always done. That’s always what’s helped me– music has sustained me throughout my whole life. I’ve been thankful to have a passion and something to focus on because I feel like if I hadn’t, my whole life would’ve probably turned out a very different way.

I wrote a lot of this new album– like half of it, actually– while we were still hitting it so incredibly hard on the road with my last album, White Noise/White Lines, the last album that I toured and promoted that was my original record. That was right before lockdown, COVID, and John’s death and everything. Then there was a whole other good part that got written when life slowed down and when I was actually able to experience life again in real-time– meaning living slow and letting things soak in, letting that well actually soak up, not just seeing the white lines on the highway all the time, the country from a van. I was able to have a break that I didn’t even know I needed. I didn’t know it at the time, but it became this beautiful kind of transition. I feel like that was such a transitional time, honestly, for everyone I know, so the album turned out to be thematic in that way. I’m not sure I meant for it to be, but I feel like that’s how they always turn out. At the end, after we got done recording, you look back and think, “That’s what that was about.” You can see the pages in front of you. Coming out on the other side, I was thinking, “Well, I won’t be put down so easy, not like a regular dog, because I’m not one.” And other people, hopefully, can see that they aren’t either.

Your song “You Can’t Ever Tell” focuses on the randomness of life, its unpredictability. Have you always considered life a game of chance, or is that perspective a byproduct of living through the pandemic?

That was actually an old song. It’s one of the older ones. Everything was pretty new, but that song and “Progress Again” were two of the ones that were sitting away in a notebook with lots of songs. I had been thinking about them because they were never ready to be put on a record. I’m trying to think of the best way to explain that– but they just weren’t ready. With “Progress Again”, I rewrote that song a couple of times and that doesn’t always happen for me, but I had the chorus for a long time, and then I finally made it stronger. I was finally able to have enough experience. I lived a lot longer, and then I was able to finally write that song the way I wanted to.

But with “You Can’t Ever Tell”, my dad would always say that. It was based on that saying, and I really wanted a waltz on the record, a proper waltz. We kept calling it “The Sweaty Willie Nelson”. I kept telling Shooter [Jennings], “No, it’s got to be like Phases and Stages. That’s what I want. I wanted that waltz and it fits right in with everything else on the record. But yeah, it is commenting on the randomness of life because you can’t ever tell.

Going back to your idea of how themes appear after the fact, it does slot perfectly with the rest of the record.

Yeah, it’s one of those things where at first I was like, “Is this going to be cool?” Then I was like, “No, it’s going to be cool”.

I wanted to talk about the track “Tall and Mighty”, specifically, the lines about the three chords and the truth losing their importance. Most folks trace that quote back to Harlan Howard, but it’s used over and over again because it rings true to so many. What were those first three-chords songs that set you on this path, where you thought you could do this as well?

I don’t know if I could recall the very first. I’ve been listening to music since I can remember. Singing for me began when I started opening my mouth. I started playing guitar at a really young age, too. As I was born and raised, country and bluegrass were all around me. Of course, there are some extremely early country influences, like Loretta Lynn. I feel like when I got older and mature enough, I could understand The Stanley Brothers and even Hank Senior. I remember hearing “Lost Highway” for the first time and just being like, “Okay, okay.” It’s like the hands of God touching you. It’s like the spirit or the ghost definitely spoke to me.

And then I started digging in and really discovering all these musicians, even those from my own state. When I first started writing songs, really, it was Bob Dylan and The Beatles and stuff like that. Even though I loved country and bluegrass was very natural to me, I discovered all these other songwriters. Then I came back around. When I was in high school, the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack came out, and I discovered John Hartford. And Loretta Lynn did that album with Jack White, Van Lear Rose. And Johnny Cash with the American Recordings, which came out when I was in high school. I was just like, “Oh, wait– being country is cool. I can embrace who I am. It’s like rock and roll!”

Then I started kind of understanding. I heard John Prine for the first time, probably when I was 16 years old. John was obviously a huge influence on me and still is. I’ll definitely have to say I caught the bug when I heard those Hank songs at a really young age. I got very obsessed and thought, “Whoa, this is what want I to do!”

That line from “Tall and Mighty” is reflecting on how my whole life is a process, and then you start questioning like, “What kind of flag am I trying to carry?” Sometimes when the wool gets taken off your eyes, you come back around– or at least I have—and realize why I loved it all along, and I’m still here.

I was going to ask how you’re able to remind yourself and maintain that belief not only in yourself but also the power of song.

Well, man, sometimes, honestly, it gets hard when you get older (laughs)! I think I still got a lot of life to live. I hope I am like John was at his age, still having something relevant to write about. That’s kind of like the dream for me. I think protecting your energy is very important. I’m always aware of what’s going on in the world, but I also have to be really careful. Sometimes… It’s like Twitter. I’ve kind of abandoned Twitter and social apps. It’s just so much and it’s like you stop looking around and seeing what’s in front of you, but that doesn’t mean you should be blind to what’s happening. We just need to protect the fire that we have to hopefully make the world just better. It’s also okay to just be happy and also try to press forward. At this point, all we can do is use our tools that we have. I think I do things every day to protect that fire, even if it’s just gardening and playing with my dog, going fishing, just something simple that helps me remember why I am doing things.

In “Peace Alone (Reap What You Sow)”, you sing that money alone doesn’t help you sleep, doesn’t leave you with a clear conscience. How have you been able to stay grounded while thriving in the industry? Or during the pandemic?

I have been very fortunate, but I’ve also worked hard. I wrote that song on my back porch one day, reflecting on inherent worth, all that Zen stuff, and good stuff we learned about. I feel like so many of my peers and friends went through that as well. You get so caught and it’s like gigs and being busy, all that stuff, really validates a lot of people. It certainly validated me for a long time. That doesn’t mean that my heart wasn’t in the right place, but we all feel important, right? When we’re doing the awesome things (laughs)? At the end of the day, I would still be me; I would still be Kelsey Waldon, even if I didn’t have all that to my merit. I would still be able to write a song; I’d still be able to have that.

I think after John’s death, that’s when I was like, “Oh, that was really cute when we worried about the gigs,” because now, people we know are passing away. And it wasn’t even just John. It was so many others. I had friends that had all kinds of loss and struggles, so I think the song is more so reflecting on that.

But obviously, money does make us more comfortable, right? But at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have some sort of peace of mind, and that is what I try to have– just a simple peace of mind, something that keeps my two feet on the ground, even though I’m still a dreamer. And that’s not bullshit, for lack of a better word, so I try to remember where I came from.

Are the people in “History Repeats Itself” and “Backwater Blues” also from that place?

Sure. As for “Backwater Blues”, I grew up in the Ohio River bottoms, and that was largely influenced by my life growing up there. And my dad still deals with the backwater all the time. He still lives down there, but it’s ruined my grandparents’ house. Growing up in middle high river bottoms, there was the Ohio River, and then there were the Colvin Lakes, every season was flooded. There’s a bunch of swamps; it’s a really interesting part of Kentucky with a lot of cypress trees and a lot of arrowhead hunting. Every time the backwater would go down, we’d always find some. My dad floods it out for duck hunting, so it’s great for that. He’s basically made a habitat where they come there, so that’s what he does for a living.

I feel like with the backwater, there was always a levy in front of our house, and I can remember coming home from school and four-wheeler all the way to the levee. We would jon boat into our house, and we’d sleep while there was water in our basement. There were snakes, which I thought was normal (laughs)! I say that all the time– that’s just the way we live!

I’m all about character and embracing cultures and stories, so I’ve always wanted to tell a story about backwater because it was just a big part of my life. That song was inspired by my dad, but I think it’s also a much more universal idea about how the water keeps taking everything away. Someone is trying as hard as they can, and the water keeps taking it away.

History Repeats Itself” was also inspired by someone I went to school with. There were only like 70 kids or so in my graduating class, and I was just reading a local article about this guy I knew that just got in some trouble. He had a twin brother, and the song started from that basic idea. Obviously, I elaborated on it, but it’s about how sometimes people really do have the best intentions, and they can come from the same place, have the same father and mother, and that doesn’t always matter. Sometimes the world around us influences that, for better or for worse. Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault; sometimes we might just go a different way, so history repeats itself.

Season’s Ending” is about the finest tribute you could offer to John. I love how you avoid cliches, and you avoid getting too sentimental. How hard was it to keep a straight face, to keep your emotions in check when you’re writing that song?

It just poured out of me. I feel like I had been kind of waiting for that moment, and I didn’t even know it for a couple of months because I couldn’t write for a really, really long time. I was experiencing a lot of grief– just like everybody else in the world, not just me. I woke up one day, and I had this feeling, the best feeling ever. I felt like I finally had something to say, even if it was just another way of saying goodbye because we didn’t even get to. It was such a hard time. We didn’t get to have a funeral or anything, so writing the song was my way of doing that. And I appreciate you saying that. Honestly, it was harder, I think, after the fact sometimes to perform it. That’s when it’s been harder to keep a straight face. Obviously, it came out of that, but I know it’s resonated with a lot of people who’ve experienced it in different ways. When I wrote it, it honestly spilled out of nowhere. It was in there waiting to come out, but those are the easy ones when those happen that way– they’re not always like that, like with “Progress Again,” but I think it was harder, much harder to track it. And honestly, even now when I perform it live, it’s healing for me, like therapy. I think trying to cope with a death is a part of life, and we all went through the anger, all the stuff. Bur flowers bloom all year, and maybe some things come back around in a different way.

What’s John’s lasting legacy, his influence not just on music, but on people as well?

I think his lasting influence is absolutely huge and important. I know a lot of people would say that because they’d be like, “He’s a legend.” Yes, obviously, but the weight of his music, the fact that his songs are literally the fabric of people’s lives, the fact you can watch a show that everybody’s watching, like Ozark, and hear “Angel From Montgomery” in one of the scenes, and the fact that more people, even after his death are discovering John Prine and literally wanting to become a songwriter, all that is because his songs and his music are so relevant and will be relevant forever. The stuff he was writing about in the ’60s is still relevant now, and I think that’s because it was always about simple ideas that were actually always really complex. When trends and everything else fades away, I think those are the type of songs that stay with you. Even if John never had a hit song, it doesn’t really matter because those songs have become a part of a person’s life, and then people pass them down to their kids from there. That’s how his music is going to live on. It’s crazy to think about the life that a record takes or just even a song. I know we promote an album cycle, but I feel like everyone has to remember that records live forever, music lives forever. They can touch people in different parts of their lives. I think that will be his legacy. And the artists on Oh Boy are really continuing that, and his son Tommy Prine, too. As long as those songs exist, John won’t be going anywhere.

What’s been your legacy so far?

Well, I hope it’s exactly the same (laughs), and I hope it continues to be! I think that’s all a songwriter could want. My goal has always been to have real fans and center the people around me that I love and care about, build my own little thing, my own little empire to work, and, honestly, just to be able to keep doing it. That’s success in and of itself these days, just even being able to make records and get them out to people. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the type of energy I want to bring into the world, especially after this transitioning time, and I hope it can be good things. I hope my songs can help people, truly– and I know everybody says that, but I really do. I hope so because when we speak our truth, other people are inspired to as well. We’ve just got to keep going.

Order No Regular Dog now from Oh Boy Records and through all your favorite digital platforms! Like & Follow Kelsey Waldon for news and LIVE performance updates!

Charlie Farmer is a Georgia writer and professor who loves his wife, his daughters, his students, his cats, his books, his LPs, and everything else one should love in life.