LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Last year at this time, Kelsey Waldon was enjoying autumn by watching her career take several encouraging leaps forward.
First, there was her newly released “White Noise, White Lines” album, a record that furthered the heavily traditional country slant of the folk-directed music the Ballard County native had been cultivating for years.
But the project was more than just a growth spurt. It was her first release under a contract with Oh Boy Records, the label founded and spearheaded by John Prine, the folk icon who championed Waldon’s songs almost as much as Waldon did his.
Then there was the concert setting – The Burl. While her October 2019 concert marked her first Lexington appearance since a well-received set at the inaugural Railbird festival two months earlier, she had become a semi-regular at the club – enough to where she began to view it as a performance home away from home.
Then 2020 hit. That’s when everything stopped.
The pride of the rural Western Kentucky community of Monkey’s Eyebrow had just completed a tour of Europe and was preparing for an extended tour with Drive-By Truckers when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Lockdown followed, along with one of the coronavirus’ first high-profile fatalities: Prine.
This weekend, Waldon will be back at The Burl. That’s about the only holdover from where her career sat a year ago. Otherwise, the songstress, along with nearly every other artist who depends on touring for a living, resides in a different world with an uncertain future.
“Honestly, I feel like it’s all been a bit of a rollercoaster,” said Waldon, who performed an outdoor concert at The Burl on Oct. 23. “I’m not sure that a lot of people on the outside realize how much this has affected the music business in general. The whole cycle of everything — the venues, the booking agencies … these folks make money off us. So when we’re not touring, it puts a lot of people in a position where they are going to have to re-think the way they’re doing things. Some people have just flat out lost their jobs.
“Obviously, it was a shock to lose the gigs, to lose what was essentially my main income. My whole year was pretty well booked until Christmas from the first of this year. It was kind of wild to watch all that just go away. But then more personal things happened that put a lot of this in perspective. My boyfriend’s uncle and John Prine died on the same day, both from COVID.
Prine’s passing was felt deeply by many in the music industry, but for Waldon, the loss was indeed personal. She was the first artist signed to Oh Boy in nearly 15 years, a move that initiated a recruitment flurry of new clients for the label. (The last signee prior to Prine’s death was Cincinnati songsmith Arlo McKinley, who will play a three-night engagement at The Burl in November.) More than that, Prine was a performance partner and mentoring spirit for Waldon. The two regularly shared concert bills and sang several of Prine’s most prized songs as duets, including “In Spite of Ourselves,” “Unwed Fathers” and the veteran songwriter’s signature tune, “Paradise.”
On one especially noteworthy July 2019 evening, Waldon got to sing “Paradise” with Prine in Central City. A notable locale, it sits in the heart of Muhlenberg County, the region where the song is set and where Prine spent many of his summers as a youth.
“It’s hard not to talk about that when we’re talking about this whole year,” Waldon said. “John and his wife Fiona were huge parts of my career. I think how special those last couple of years were and how happy he was. Nobody was ready for him to go. I don’t think he was ready to go. He had a whole other album he was about to record. His help, his mentorship and even his endorsement, I guess you could say, really pushed me to the next level. It elevated everything. John Prine will forever be the one who helped me.”
“John got to play Paris before he died. He sold it out. That was his big goal, so he definitely went out on top. I mean, I miss touring in general right now because it’s such a huge creative expression for me. But the thing I miss most about that is knowing I won’t ever be able to sing ‘In Spite of Ourselves’ with John anymore, or ‘Paradise.’ Stuff like that. Things can change so quickly, you know? You just have to live as happily in the present moment as best you can.”
Waldon will release a new EP recording through Oh Boy before year’s end. She has also participated in several streaming performances, including a brief set for this year’s virtual reimagining of Farm Aid. She was featured as part of an all-star lineup that included Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Brandi Carlile, Margo Price and fellow Kentuckian Chris Stapleton. Regular touring, though, will remain scarce until the pandemic comes under control. This weekend’s Burl show will be only Waldon’s second full concert since March (a September show at Nashville’s City Winery was the other).
“This year has been quite an experience. I’m lucky to have been working as much as I have. Doing this show at The Burl will be awesome. Lexington has always been good to me. I consider it one of my second home scenes. Community is more important than ever right now.
“We’ve always validated ourselves on staying busy. We’ve always validated ourselves on good gigs. But I’ll always be who I am. I’m not going anywhere and I’m not going to quit putting out records, so I just have to learn to be patient with everything else and remain as positive as I can.”