NASHVILLE — There's a black-and-white photograph that singer-songwriter Kelsey Waldon treasures. It's of her great-grandmother Maurice Rollins, then a teenager, strumming her guitar and gazing at the camera.
The photo evokes a time when Hank Williams Sr. and Bill Monroe were voices for the lonesome.
It's an era Waldon knows well.
Waldon's music lives in smoky honky-tonks, the kind that are filled with star-crossed lovers busy spending the bills on beer, where rusted pickup trucks litter the gravel lot out back.
On Tuesday, the 26-year-old Western Kentucky native released her first full-length album, The Gold Mine, an independent record fully financed from a Kickstarter.com campaign.
Waldon's piercing 11-track release draws from her rural childhood and the journey to find her voice in country music's capital, Nashville, where she lives now. (Stream three of her songs here on her website.)
"It's about the ebbs and flows of being here in Nashville and playing in the honky-tonks," Waldon said, "the nights where I just get drunk and sad and depressed."
"The other nights where you're having that day where you're blasting off and the next you might just be sitting on your tail not going anywhere. The whole record is centered around that."
Her sound is rooted in old country, and throughout the 32-minute record Waldon dispenses ugly truths and wisdom, the result of a Bible Belt upbringing.
Waldon grew up in Ballard County, west of Paducah, living in communities including Bandana and Monkeys Eyebrow, before moving to Barlow. When she was 12, her parents divorced, and she picked up a guitar.
Waldon's mother, Kelly Harris, said she noticed her daughter's talent shortly after she started taking guitar lessons from Herb Chapman, the father of Grammy-winning Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman.
"He told me, 'She has it,'" Harris said. "You just know it or you don't, and she does."
Waldon spent her youth in Western Kentucky life, fishing on the banks of Colvin Lake and hanging around her dad's hunting lodge in Monkeys Eyebrow.
"I grew up around a lot of men that were away from home at the hunting lodge," Waldon said. "There were a lot of good times, a lot of bad times. It was a slow life, but a good life, too. We had it tough, but sometimes I think we had it better than a lot of people."
Waldon's passion for songwriting flourished in her teen years, and she began channeling her experiences and observations in a sleepy town into song. She played at county fairs, at Wickliffe's Harvest Festival, at church and in any space with willing listeners.
"There might not be 10 people there, but she would go on the weekends and play," Harris said. "That's all she wanted to do on the weekends, is play and sing her songs. Usually she only sang the ones that she wrote. Sometimes she does cover songs, but mostly it was only the ones that she wrote herself, her words."
Nashville on a whim
At 18, Waldon landed her first real gig, across the Ohio River in Metropolis, Ill.
"I can't even remember the name of the club right now; it's not there anymore," she said. "It was kind of the first thing I did with my original tunes. I remember I was so scared, and I just made myself. I was like if you wanna do this you gotta do it. I'm really glad no one has documentation of that."
After high school, Waldon ventured to Nashville on a whim, pursuing her dream. Waldon worked a 40-hour, minimum-wage job and performed at bars that would take in the aspiring underage songwriter.
"My songs were probably OK for an 18-year-old, but I don't think they were good," Waldon said. "I got my ass kicked, for lack of better words."
'She's so talented'
After an unsuccessful stint in Nashville, Waldon moved back home. But it wasn't the last the city would see of her.
In her two years back in Ballard County, Waldon graduated with honors from Western Kentucky Community and Technical College with an associate's degree, and she was accepted into the songwriting program at Belmont University in Nashville.
Waldon caught the eye of Grammy-winning producer and music publicist Tamara Saviano while completing an internship during her senior year.
"She shared her music with me then, and I was like, 'Oh, my God, she's an updated Jessie Colter and Sammi Smith,' an outlaw country artist which I love," Saviano said. "She's so talented."
The Kentuckian conjures a golden era of country, when Tammy Wynette's power ballads and Loretta Lynn's blue-collar revelations ruled the airwaves.
Waldon said the country music queens were large influences on her album.
"I got really into a lot of Tammy and Loretta, especially their late-'60s and '70s stuff," Waldon said. "I'm talking about the deep cuts, really realizing how good it really is. Especially sonically; it was really hip for that time."
But she's hardly a tribute artist.
"She's not just trying to re-create Tammy Wynette," said Michael Rinne, who produced and bass guitar on The Gold Mine. "She's taking real subject matters and looking forward, and by doing that, I think, anybody who hears her music will be forced to look forward.
"How can we make this better? How do I make myself better? How does this relationship get better? It's only through honesty that those sort of things in your life happen. Kelsey is sitting at the honky-tonk, offering you a drink and saying, 'What about tomorrow?'"
Going for honesty
Waldon's gritty and revealing portraits of small-town life put her in a class of Kentucky songwriters largely unmatched in country music's current landscape.
On the feisty High in Heels, Waldon croons about popping pills and being skeptical about the "church people" offering salvation at her front door:
Now early one morning someone came to our door
They held a tiny book that said heaven was in store
And if we believed there could be a way out
It seemed like quite a bit to think about.
It recalls John Prine's Vietnam War-era classic Sam Stone.
The characters on Waldon's record are small-town folk, but their meandering experiences are universal. Whether lamenting the toils of a miner digging for coal in Harlan on Quicksand, or documenting the ups and downs of quarreling lovers on the pedal-steel-drenched One Time Again, Waldon uses an often-forgotten rural demographic and makes their experiences relatable, doing so with a driving wit and a heavy heart.
"I think country music can be for everybody and it can still be country," she said. "I wanted everyone to see the beauty that I see in it, but also small-town rural life, and I think everyone can relate to it in a way, feel the honesty in it. If it's authentic, I think, they can appreciate it."
Not mainstream, but 'real'
Waldon's most accurate barometer of success might not be airplay on mainstream country radio. Female voices have become increasingly scarce in an era dominated by so-called "bro country" — dirt-road affirmations and rap-country hybrids.
"I hate when people say there is no more real country music anymore," Waldon said, "because there is. Just because it's not on mainstream radio, who cares?
"I'm gonna do what I want to do no matter what. I feel really inspired to make the kind of music that I do, and I don't feel scared about it. I don't think I'm doing the wrong thing. I don't think it's wrong at all. I think though that there are lot of listeners that want to hear that, and I think they will find it."
Saviano said Waldon's career isn't contingent on country radio exposure.
"The way Kelsey is going to have a long career is to go out and play her songs in front of the people and put out her own albums and remain an independent artist," she said. "She will always have creative freedom. Artists can make a really good living now without radio. She may never be rich and famous, but she can always make a living with her music."
Meanwhile, in Ballard County, Waldon's pursuits are being watched with pride.
Harris said, "I think people are very proud of her, and proud of her for chasing her dream."