Kelsey Waldon stuck it out, and now she’s reaping the rewards. Waldon, a daughter of Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ky., has performed country music since she was a child. She arrived in Music City in the mid-2010s with an eye toward mainstream country, but her incisive songwriting led her down an alternate route.
“My story has been my own,” Waldon explains in an email. “I feel like I’ve grown up in front of people and in front of my listeners in a way. I didn’t ‘blow up’ with my first album. … Instead I just kept a steady pace of refining and growing with each one. I didn’t really know what I was doing, just that I loved it.”
On her standout album No Regular Dog, released via Oh Boy in August, Waldon reflects on that journey. On “Tall and Mighty,” she muses upon her road-warrior lifestyle, how things might have turned out if she’d stayed in Monkey’s Eyebrow, and finding contentment where she’s at. Songs like this are among Waldon’s most personal yet.
“I am always growing and evolving, and I don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel to be innovative,” she says. “You just have to bring your own flavor to the story or to the sound or the culture. I realize now the album is more about understanding my inherent worth that I had all along … but also knowing that I have what it takes to survive and I always will. I ain’t going anywhere.”
The song contrasts with “Dirty Old Town,” from Waldon’s 2016 album I’ve Got a Way. The song is a searing indictment of the music business, especially as it’s conducted in Nashville. It’s a red-hot rocker, inspired by Waldon’s love of honky-tonk music.
“It’s not as deep as a lot of my other songs, maybe, but it’s a really fun one to play live and gives the steel and guitar some time to show out,” Waldon says. “Plus, it makes people dance. Sometimes you need a song like that. Every song has its place. … Even the old ones can become new again, especially live. I think it’s nice that during our live show, there are so many different dynamics, and each song has its place.”
While No Regular Dog showcases Waldon’s writing, it is also a musical tour de force. Waldon is quite conscious of how her band gels, and how songs translate from the studio to the stage.
“Chemistry in a band and a certain group of people is everything,” she says. “Sometimes it can even mean more than individual talent. The folks playing on the album, I had been playing with for a very long time, so we were incredibly comfortable. They are some of the very best.”
The players on No Regular Dog are Waldon’s usual touring band — Nate Felty (drums), Alec Newnam (bass) and Brett Resnick (pedal steel) — alongside special guests Doug Pettibone (dobro, guitar) and Aubrey Richmond (fiddle), as well as background vocals from Kyshona Armstrong, Nickie Conley, Maureen Murphy and Kristen Rogers. Waldon’s current tour has a different cast of players — drummer Zach Martin and bassist Erik Mendez holding down the rhythm section, delightfully monikered Muskrat Jones on pedal steel, fiddler Libby Weitnauer and guitarist Junior Tutwiler — but they are no less locked-in. Fans have given them a name referencing a classic Emmylou Harris touring lineup.
“It’s been just fantastic to see how the songs from the record have kind of evolved into this whole other thing with this other energy behind it,” Waldon notes. “I have been so inspired by it. We’ve been calling it ‘Kelsey Waldon and Her Hot Band.’ … Fans just started saying that on tour, so it stuck. The chemistry with this group of people is just so special right now.”
As Waldon swings into the final leg of her current tour and makes her return to Nashville, she finds comfort in balancing the constant motion of touring and the peace of staying sedentary.
“I absolutely love touring and the whole process of that, and had missed it a lot,” she says. “I love the art of the show, too. That’s when you see the real faces and make the real connection that your music has meant something to people out there. It’s the only thing we do sometimes that actually feels like a real routine, as well.”
Waldon brought a new perspective with her this time — particularly, her sobriety. She stopped drinking two years ago. “Handling my business without it has been better than ever, and I am more present now and actually enjoying myself,” she says. “It’s made room now for all this other stuff that I didn’t realize I was missing. I also have learned now with some healthy perspective on my past and on my career.”
Her road family has provided her with plenty of support through the process. “I have had a door open for me, and all I need to do is just put my two feet in my own boots and walk through it,” says Waldon. “Feels like I can do anything, now. Stuff isn’t so scary anymore.”
She will conclude her tour at The Basement East on Dec. 16, and she’s excited to show what she and the band have been cooking to a hometown crowd. It will be their last show of the year. But she won’t be home for long.
“I’m a lifer and I hope I’m doing this forever.”