With her years in Nashville, Kelsey Waldon has probably played tougher venues than a restaurant full of Wizards fans high on booze and a night’s victory, but Saturday at Washington’s Hill Country Barbecue, you had to feel a little pity for the country singer. Ten minutes before showtime, it looked like the Kentucky native was going to be competing with brisket and bellowing all night.
That is, until Waldon took the mike — and took over the room. “I was told I should dedicate this song to Paul Pierce,” she said gamely, referring to the Wizards small forward, who reversed the team’s misfortune right before the final buzzer that night. Now that’s how you win over a crowd of half-drunk dudes in Wizards tees. They hooted and hollered as Waldon kicked into the first few notes of what would be her own winning performance: a walloping set of down-on-your-luck-but-truckin’-on-anyway country.
As with several promising new country artists — they do exist, though you won’t hear them on the radio — Waldon’s fantastic 2014 debut album, “The Gold Mine,” embraces what some consider the genre’s artistic peak: the 1960s and 1970s. Ah, those were the golden years, when greats such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson took on a rawer sound to beat back bloat in Nashville. But there’s not a lot of runnin’ from the law on “The Gold Mine.” It’s more about peeling back the façade of a small town and bearing witness to its devastation.
“High in heels, high on pills/Now who in the hell is gonna pay them bills?” Waldon sang on “High in Heels,” an album highlight that deserves a top spot on the country charts but is simply too good to get there — not when the industry can’t seem to remove the needle of bro country from its arm.
Many of the tunes on “The Gold Mine” sound written from either the bottom of a bottle or a bank account; they’re crushing songs, liable to coax out a few tears if you listen too closely. But even Brett Resnick’s aching pedal steel couldn’t sap the joy from Waldon’s face; she sang her saddest lyrics with an indefatigable smile. Is that showmanship, or just the pleasure that comes with a performance drawn right from the soul?
After an hour-long set of originals and well-selected covers (Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe, the Gosdin Brothers), Waldon and her ace band weren’t worn out yet: They stepped off the stage to take a break and mingle, then hopped right up again for a second set of tributes.
“Are you ready for the country?” Waldon belted out, channeling Jennings and Neil Young. But another question loomed larger: Is country music ready for her?
Schweitzer is a freelance writer.