The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kelsey Waldon’s country songs feel as steady as what’s under her boots

Touring behind the year’s best country album, ‘No Regular Dog,’ the Kentucky-born singer keeps striding forward

Kelsey Waldon performs at Jammin Java in Vienna, Va., with drummer Zach Martin and bassist Erik Mendez. Waldon released her latest album, “No Regular Dog,” in August. (Photo by Kyle Gustafson/For the Washington Post)
3 min

When a country song makes you tap your toe, that’s your body sending your brain a hint that this song is only pretty good. Toe tapping isn’t dancing the same way that chewing gum isn’t eating. It’s a reflexive expression of the mildest satisfaction, and at best, a confirmation of the world beneath your feet while your mind floats away.

Kelsey Waldon doesn’t write toe-tapping country songs. If you need proof, buy a concert ticket and get there early enough to stake out some turf up front. You’ll see the 34-year-old Kentucky native doing a different kind of footwork onstage while she sings her high-lonesome music, keeping time with the heels of her boots, as if her songs are things that need to be stomped out of the ground.

That’s how it went for 90-plus minutes at Jammin Java in Vienna on Monday night, anyway. Waldon’s lyrics about perseverance and progress took all kinds of dazzling flights from her airways, but the fundamental power of her music seemed to originate under her left heel.

And these were thoughtfully constructed, carefully detailed country songs, too, played steady and hard. The best of them came from “No Regular Dog,” Waldon’s newest album and easily the best released by any country singer this year. Performing its title track straight away, the songwriter laid bare her multitudes within the space of an opening verse, describing herself as “a wolf on the kill” and “a survivor of my dreams” while her bandmates used fiddle and pedal steel to howl along, either in solidarity or sympathy. That’s because Waldon wasn’t just singing about endless yearning up there. She was singing about enduring it, and if you were caught out in that Monday night darkness lightly tapping your toes to this uncommonly heavy ballad about the psychic weight of perpetual anticipation, you weren’t really listening.

After that, Waldon promised her audience that she’d “keep barreling through ’em,” and she stuck to her word — a word that felt particularly well-chosen. Because even when sung in her most delicate twang, Waldon’s newest songs seemed to be barreling through tough memories (“Season’s Ending”) and blurry futures (“Can’t Ever Tell”), their forward-motion rhythms consistently returning us to the present. Her rhythm-minded bandmates — pedal steel guitarist Brady “Muskrat Jones” Henry, drummer Zach Martin, bassist Erik Mendez, guitarist Junior Tutwiler and fiddler Libby Weitnauer — weren’t toe-tappers, either, and they repeatedly marked their respective places in the music from the bottom up, making time itself feel vivid, collaborative and real.

As if Waldon’s lyrics hadn’t already done the job, there was some extra-credit poetry in that collective temporal push, too. Time isn’t some optional thing. We have to barrel through it whether we like it or not. But we still get to choose whether to do it alone or together.