Album Review: Kelsey Waldon – I’ve Got A Way

Jof Album Review, Headlines

“Ooh, is this Margo Price?”
“No, it’s not actually. It’s Kelsey Waldon.”
“Kacey who?”
“No, Kelsey. K.E.L.S.E.Y. Like Kelsey Grammer.”
“It’s a man?”
“No, it’s not a man. I don’t know why Kelsey Grammer’s got a girl’s name. It’s Kelsey Waldon. She’s actually been around for a while, but this is her new album. I really really like it.”
“Ah, I see. Sounds like Margo Price.”
“Shut up, nan.”

It’s about timing. Timing is everything. Eight months ago this record would have landed in a completely different world of country traditionalism. A world which Margo Price hadn’t already stuck a flag in and claimed as her own. Kelsey Waldon’s debut, 2013’s The Goldmine, predated the current wave of classic country artists breaking through by a good couple of years, but such is the nature of Margo Price’s seemingly unassailable rise that it’s almost impossible to listen to the follow up without feeling the shadow of her success falling across it. Eight months ago we’d have all been likening Kelsey Waldon’s second album to Loretta at her sassiest or a less surly Sammi Smith and hailing a new queen of classic country, but it’s not eight months ago; the landscape has shifted and the bar’s been raised. I’ve Got A Way is being released six months after Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and sadly for the former the success of the latter kind of gets in the way of it a little bit. It’s just timing, but sometimes timing is everything.

It seems slightly churlish to keep bringing up Margo Price though because I’ve Got A Way really does stand on its own as a great little record. Like The Goldmine before it, as well as this Summer’s new album from Erin Rae and Cale Tyson’s Careless Soul from earlier this year, I’ve Got A Way was produced by Michael Rinne, but it feels more refined and thought out than its predecessor. It’s more of a statement record. You get the feeling that this might be Kelsey’s big shot and she has no intention of blowing it. That said, album opener ‘Dirty Old Town’ is just a straightforward scrappy little honky tonker – “I’ve been fightin’ with my left side, fightin’ with my right side, fightin’ with all I got”, she sings, vowing to “keep hanging on” regardless of what everyone throws at her, riding around Nashville in a beat up muscle car sticking two fingers up through the sun roof as Brett Resnick slams into his pedal steel in the back seat. From there on out though the rest of the album tends towards a more introspective tone, brooding with self-empowerment, Kelsey casting herself as as the embattled country stoic. From the small town kiss off of ‘You Can Have It’ (“You don’t need anybody to tell you that you can’t live the way you want to”) to the album’s lead single ‘All By Myself’ (“when you wanted to be you you needed somebody else but I can be me all by myself”), this is an album about trying to stand tall in a world that wants to hammer you down. It’s about finally knowing who you are and being okay with it. Kelsey Waldon doesn’t need you or anybody else telling her who she is or who she should be. Honestly, don’t do it. I think it would really really annoy her.

It’s all back to the honky tonk again briefly for ‘False King’, which could be the theme tune to this year’s American presidential race – “You can’t place a crown on the head of a clown and hope it turns out to be a king,” she deadpans in her understated Kentucky drawl, spitting and sassing her way around Resnick’s smoking steel solos. It bears a no doubt accidental, but nonetheless incredibly close resemblance to Margo Price’s ‘About To Find Out’, but I’m really trying not to mention her so we’ll let it slide. It’s a lot of fun anyway, carried away by that by now infectious fighting spirit of hers. Sadly it’s the last of the out and out honky tonkers though, and the rest of the album’s eleven songs take a more gentle route for their empowerment. ‘Don’t Hurt The Ones (Who’ve Loved You The Most)’, ‘I’d Rather Go On’ and ‘The Heartbreak’ are all set up as the album’s big weepers but come out feeling slightly flat somehow. There’s an undeniable world-weariness to her clean Kentucky tone now that perhaps wasn’t there on The Goldmine, but the songs themselves pull their emotional punches when it really matters. It’s an incredibly likeable record, but for all its emotional power it still feels like a difficult record to completely fall in love with sometimes. You throw yourself into it headfirst but it feels like Kelsey is holding something back from you. There’s something oddly level-headed and practical about it all. Classic country is built as much on melodrama and sentimentalism as it is on authenticity, and it feels like I’ve Got A Way could do with a little more sugar and schmaltz here and there. Just a sprinkling. I’m not talking full on Tammy Wynette, just a gentle tug of the heart strings every now and then. It feels like she almost overdoes the stoicism at times. She’s a little bit too sensible and together. You wonder what it would be like if she really let herself go, what it would take for her to loosen up a little bit. It feels like it’s an album written more from her head than her heart, like she might have overthought it in places. It’s as if she’s taking the songs and sanded away all the knots and the rough edges, but it was those knots and rough edges that gave The Goldmine its charm. I’ve Got A Way almost sounds like it’s been put together with too much thought for what people might think of it. Not that it makes it a bad record, or in places any less affecting. You just wonder what it would be like if she’d worried a little bit less. Imagine you’ve been invited to a dinner party and you’re really worried about going because you don’t really know anyone and you’ve got it into your head that everyone will be judging you, so you end up wearing a really formal dress you’d never normally wear and uncomfortable shoes and making polite small talk all night and in the end you worry so much about what the other guests might think of you that you end up not really being yourself all night. It’s a bit like that.

It’s nitpicking really though, because it’s a genuinely lovely record. Alongside the originals, there’s a delicate and gently pleading version of the Gosdin Brother’s ‘There Must Be a Someone’, and an ingenious delta swamp reworking of Bill Monroe’s ‘Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road’. Michael Rinne’s production is an almost faultless reworking of a classic country sound with enough contemporary touches to not make it feel entirely out of place in 2016. Kelsey Waldon seems more than happy just to be able to do what she does the way she wants to do it. It’s like she sings on ‘False King’, “I was never trying to be the queen. I just take a lot of pride in who I am and the way I sing”, and I guess sometimes that’s enough. More than enough of a reason to take this record to your heart for a while and Kelsey Waldon more than deserves to sit on any of the numerous lists of new traditionalists coming out of the other side of Nashville right now.

Just don’t mention the ‘M’ word.

  Track List
  1. Dirty Old Town
  2. All By Myself
  3. You Can Have It
  4. False King
  5. Don’t Hurt The Ones (Who’ve Loved You The Most)
  6. I’d Rather Go On
  7. There Must Be A Someone
  8. Let’s Pretend
  9. Life Moves Slow
  10. Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road
  11. The Heartbreak


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Hometown

Monkey's Eyebrow, Kentucky



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About the Author

Jof

I'm a Buffy The Vampire Slayer watching Smash Hits reading militant feminist country music lover. Country music was the first music I ever fell in love with. When I was five years old all my heroes were cowboys or country singers. I grew up listening to Johnny Cash and `George Hamilton IV, Crystal Gayle and Marty Robbins. As I grew up I fell in love with other things, but I never forgot country music. My first love. And as I get older I find myself where I began all those years ago. Listening to George Hamilton IV and dreaming of being a country singer. We can still be friends if you don't like Waylon Jennings, but we'll never truly understand each other.