The short version: With sharp production and songwriting, ‘White Noise/White Lines’ arguably speaks to Kelsey Waldon’s southern roots better than ever before.
- Favorite tracks: “White Noise, White Lines,” “My Epitaph,” “Kentucky, 1988,” “Sunday’s Children,” “Anyhow”
- Least favorite track: “Lived And Let Go”
- Rating: 8/10
The long version: Considering Kentucky is the home of bluegrass and plenty of well-known legends in country music, it’s not hyperbole to say it stands as a pillar for the genre. Nashville may be where country music is “officially” based, but truthfully, good music can come from anywhere.
Still, for anyone paying close attention to the genre over the past few years, Kentucky’s contributions have accelerated at an alarming (and, frankly, underrated) rate. At this point, names like Chris Stapleton, Tyler Childers and Sturgill Simpson speak for themselves, and one also can’t discount a rising star like Ian Noe. Still, unlike, say, Texas, we don’t necessarily associate these artists with a strong sense of regional pride, outside of, say, Childers. Instead, the styles are more diverse and distinct, and the focus with these artists is usually on something else entirely.
And, to be honest, whereas mainstream country music artists have churned out several songs speaking to how great their hometowns are, especially this decade, the roots of country music point toward celebration, but with an honest framing. Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, for example, remember their childhoods with fondness, since it was all they ever knew, but they never shied away from painting the entire picture for the rest of us.
To say that Kelsey Waldon is only now doing that on her new album, White Noise/White Lines, though, would be skirting around the main point. For one, Waldon carries on the proud spirit for her home state, proving artists can foster sustainable careers without country radio, especially with her signing to John Prine’s Oh Boy Records prior to this album’s release. Also, whereas Waldon sang about growing up in the south from her own perspective on past albums, White Noise/White Lines feels like she’s adjusting the scope in an outward direction, focusing more on the general picture of life growing up in Kentucky. It also just so happens to be an excellent listen.
While this is more of a note on the album’s length than anything else, White Noise/White Lines feels like Waldon’s most terse project to date, lyrically, reflecting on her home state with a warm sense of ease, yet also acknowledging its darker attributes that took their toll on everyone else around her. Part of that is reflected in her delivery, which I’ve always liked for her bluntness. Yet when digging into the deeper subtext, that bluntness helps make the fiery confidence in “Anyhow” an absolute highlight on this album, but also exposes darker edges elsewhere. A fond remembrance of her childhood home, for example, includes strong imagery of the beauty in the scenery around her, yet also shows her and her family dealing with her father’s alcoholism with a sense of normalcy – a part of the experience, but also one that would take on a deeper meaning as she grew older. And that sense of normalcy only grows more apparent in “Black Patch,” a story of the 1904 Black Patch Tobacco War where Waldon approaches this fight as something that just needs to be done, and that’s all there is to it.
Ultimately, though, it’s that childlike innocence that helps keep Waldon grounded and appreciative of her home, if only because, underneath the working class struggles, she understands its beauty in a way we, the listeners, can’t, even those who may have grown up down there and share a different perspective. Still, that doesn’t mean she isn’t going to look upon everything with rose-colored glasses, whether that’s reflected in the simpler “Very Old Barton,” where Waldon works through a rough patch, or “Sunday’s Children,” a criticism on how modern religion misses the point that, while unexpected, comes through in a good way. If anything, though, that willingness to approach situations from a more casual perspective of things simply needing to be worked through can hinder some tracks that need more details to flesh them out. “Run Away” tries to put an alcoholic in his place by having his lover threaten to leave him as she reminds him of what he’s throwing away, but it seems like a weaker way to brush over some obvious issues there; the same comment extends toward “Very Old Barton.” And if “Sunday’s Children” is a biting, arguably needed criticism, “Lived And Let Go” feels like Waldon backpedals to deliver a touching ode for everyone to get along, and yet once again tries to paint broad strokes over sensitive issues in the world.
But for an album exploring Kentucky life, it helps that the sonic palette sets up what is arguably Waldon’s most “southern” album to date. The title track weaves together a fantastic bass and electric guitar groove, and it helps that, for one, Waldon sells this song with a fantastic lazier flow to help it roll along, and two, when she sings of experiencing a heatwave no child should ever have to know, the blustering funk of the track helps put the listener in that scenario quite effectively.
White Noise/White Lines is an album that pays attention to its details and, as a result, has fantastic layers to its production and instrumentation. If anything, the album’s greatest asset is its low-end support, particularly the groove-heavy basslines that drive the aforementioned title track, almost solely support “Sunday’s Children,” and add a sobering seriousness to the Ola Belle Reed cover of “My Epitaph” – and oh boy (pun intended), does Waldon nail that cover.
But when coupled with warm, firm acoustic melodies, pedal steel to fill in the atmosphere and electric guitars to add further punctuation, there’s a pure richness to this album that help the songs feel fully fleshed out. “Anyhow” carries a nice, bristling energy as it is with its rollicking, upbeat energy, but when the other elements are added in, it carries an undeniably infectious momentum, which is fitting, given that it’s Waldon’s ode to how far she’s already gotten in her career. Conversely, when tracks like “Black Patch” and “Very Old Barton” opt for more of a looser, almost waltz-like, pure country-inspired cadence, they show Waldon’s distinctive country music roots.
Yet if I’m looking for another track to criticize in this department, I’d turn again toward “Lived And Let Go,” which is a stark acoustic track where one can tell the focus is on the message over its presentation. Yet considering how well-crafted these other songs sound, this track can’t help but feel a bit lacking, if only in comparison.
Still, while The Goldmine might still house some of Waldon’s best songs, White Noise/White Lines just may be her most consistently pleasing project to date, blending fantastic production with equally great storytelling. Considering there’s only eight original songs here, not counting the “My Epitaph” cover or the two interludes, it’s also a short listen, and I would argue another track or two might have made this album better, if only to better flesh out the narrative. Still, White Noise/White Lines also doesn’t waste time at any moment, and if you’re looking for an example of an artist only continuing to improve and continue to be one of the finest performers in the country music genre today, it’s hard to argue against Waldon.