I’ve stated before that, given Kentucky’s resurgence as a legitimate talent pool for rising country and country-adjacent acts over the past decade, it can be easy to overrate certain acts based on solely on their origin, not unlike how Texas acts singing about their home state started to get played out back in the 2000s. But there are also those cases where it can feel like certain acts are underrated, even when they’ve been around just as long as certain praised contemporaries. And given how solid Kelsey Waldon’s track record with her releases has been dating all the way back to 2014’s The Gold Mine, I’d like to think she should be bigger than she is.
But with a sacred slot on the late John Prine’s record label and a rejuvenation in her step after these last few years ahead of her newest album – fittingly titled No Regular Dog, at that – she’s slowly building on her career one step at a time. And with Shooter Jennings contributing a more well-rounded sound for her buttery Kentucky drawl and content that’s always been informed by her home state, she just might have made her best album to date.
It’s also her most low-key and unassuming one, too – the sort of album that often pulls inspiration from lo-fi and Outlaw-era grit without necessarily aping the era. So there’s a part of me that thinks this is a small expansion of an already established sound that nevertheless manages to do some heavy lifting and make some big changes to the overall presentation. Jennings’ production has only gotten warmer and richer as the years have passed, and there’s a much greater focus on smoked-out pedal steel, touches of fiddle and banjo – plus some beautiful piano on the Prine tribute in “Season’s Ending” – along with a great traditional country texture that, while not unfamiliar for Waldon, feels more well-balanced and fully formed than ever before and complements her ragged drawl.
Granted, she’s never relied heavily on hard-charged swagger as a performer, but her naturally weary, unassuming delivery does have a way of making these songs feel bigger than what they might seem in the text – a lot of hard living on the road, difficult self-reflection and even more difficult forgiveness for one’s own self, burn out, and relapses, if not for her than certainly for her characters. It’s not an album marked by desperate drama, though, so much as weariness and a dogged commitment to fight on through, where the best moments are where Waldon knows herself and her characters and can showcase the sort of defiance that lends them their own found strength, like on “Sweet Little Girl.”
Only that doesn’t come so easily at points, especially for characters that aren’t quite regular dogs. I’m not wild about how “Tall and Mighty” leans on generic platitudes at points (same for “Peace Alone”), but the message that one can’t always stand tall and mighty does certainly provide an anchoring point for this project. And when you factor in the distinctly Kentuckian setting and framing that informs a lot of her characters and stories … well, there’s certainly time for warm appreciation on the pretty tender and sweet “Backwater Blues,” but you’ll also get the tale of two brothers on two different paths with “History Repeats Itself,” a track told from the perspective of the brother on the wrong path torn by jealousy and poverty who’s clinging on with desperate urgency but knows it’s too late for him to claw his way back – but then he makes note of a flawed justice system that’d rather punish than reform, and it’s pretty easy to sympathize. And from Waldon’s own perspective of the touring musician disillusioned by the nature of the industry, you get the shattering of an idol’s influence here on Earth with the heartbreaking “Season’s Ending,” and the equally dark, confessional “Progress Again,” where the progress she’s referring to is simply inner peace that seems harder and harder to come by.
Now, for what is a compelling arc – if all too familiar and somewhat played-out in recent years – I do wish sometimes the project did have that aforementioned sense of dramatic urgency to add greater heft or dynamics to it. “You Can’t Ever Tell” is a pleasant little waltz about uncertainties relating to day-to-day anxiety … but that’s what also makes it come across as a tad too quaint and undercooked to hit more effectively. And while I do appreciate the darker bass groove anchoring “History Repeats Itself,” it’s another track that could have used a bit more muscle in its composition to be a bit more harrowing as the content suggests. Even with that said, this is a great traditional country project and is arguably Waldon’s most well-rounded project to date, and while she may lay claim as no regular dog, I think this is an easy album for anyone to enjoy.
- Favorite tracks: “Sweet Little Girl,” “Season’s Ending,” “History Repeats Itself,” “Backwater Blues,” “Progress Again”
- Least favorite track: “You Can’t Ever Tell”