Interview: Kelsey Waldon Sings for a Better South on New EP, ‘They’ll Never Keep Us Down’
The Friday after the 2020 presidential election, Kelsey Waldon was feeling "very, very inspired."
The race had not yet been called for Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and both her home state of Kentucky and her adopted home state of Tennessee had remained red -- but signs of change were there, if you looked.
"I think most of us really want what's best for the people of this country, and just this country in general, you know? ... despite parties or anything like that," Waldon tells The Boot. "No matter what happens ... the work is never done. [Even with Biden and Harris as president- and vice president-elect], it doesn't mean we stop caring or putting people's feet to the fire."
Waldon is proud of her roots in the Bluegrass State -- in Monkey's Eyebrow, Ky., to be exact: "I love the South; I love the Appalachian region with a passion," she gushes. "We've brought some of the best things I think this country has to offer out of the South."
But loving where you're from doesn't mean accepting it as it is unconditionally.
"I think a lot of people look down on the South, but racism is everywhere ... but, you know, I would like to see a more inclusive South. I mean, it's just such a colorful region," Waldon continues. "You know, when I was growing up, a lot of my gay friends didn't feel accepted ... They loved where they lived, too, and, I don't know, I just feel like people shouldn't feel that way. I feel like we should love them back."
To that end, Waldon advocates for a more inclusive South on her new EP, They'll Never Keep Us Down. The seven-track project, out Friday (Nov. 20), features covers of protest songs, that express empathy for another's plight and push for change.
"We really are a lot more alike than we are different. But, you know, this stuff isn't going to change with us being silent," Waldon reflects. "I think we should normalize, especially in country music, freely being able to say things; I think we should normalize that, because it's okay ..."
They'll Never Keep Us Down opens with "The Law Is for Protection of the People," a Kris Kristofferson song that questions who, exactly, certain societal norms benefit. Neil Young's "Ohio," Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side," Hazel Dickens' "They'll Never Keep Us Down" and "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," written by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas, help round out the tracklist.
"A lot of them were songs that I really remember leaving a big mark on me," Waldon explains, "and a lot of them [were] done by my musical heroes that, especially as a very young person, just kind of made me understand a bigger issue at hand [and] helped me see someone else's point of view."
A cover of Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" features Adia Victoria and Kyshona Armstrong, both natives of the Carolinas like Simone.
"These are all Black southern women who really deserve to have their perspectives heard and really deserve to have the mic handed to them," Waldon says, later adding, "As far as country music goes, I mean, we owe just about everything to the Black South and Black artistry -- I mean, from, like, the banjo, for God's sake."
Waldon praises Simone's conviction and willingness to sacrifice in order "to speak her mind and speak her heart." She notes, "As Southern women and as someone that considers themselves connected to the South, that was an important song to do. It's very, very bold."
"That songs not about me," Waldon continues. "That is about listening to someone else's perspective."
So is John Prine's "Sam Stone," about a Purple Heart-decorated war veteran who dies of a drug overdose. The late folk icon was famous for his empathetic lyrics and songs written from others' perspectives ("I think that's maybe the ultimate song of empathy right there," Waldon says of "Sam Stone"), and Waldon, who is signed to Prine's own Oh Boy Records, chokes up as she speaks about covering the song and carrying on her label boss' legacy.
"I always in some way want to keep that candle burning for John, and all that he's done for me ... It just didn't feel right to do this EP without doing a John tune," Waldon says. "I think John always spoke up through his music and in his art, and in general."
Prine died in early April, of COVID-19. Waldon, who joined Oh Boy Records in 2019, was one of his final signees.
"John loved this country," Waldon continues, "and I think he wanted to see it the best that it could be."
Just like her.
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