STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next we have the story of Kelsey Waldon. She's a singer and songwriter from Monkey's Eyebrow, Ky. At an early age, she moved to Nashville, Tenn., which is just the next state over on the map but a world away in some ways. On her latest album, she emphasizes where she's from. Jewly Hight hopped in Waldon's Jeep for a trip back home.
JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: The trip to Kentucky's half an hour shorter from Kelsey Waldon's new house than it was from her Nashville duplex.
KELSEY WALDON: Yeah, Ashland City's definitely closer to the border. So everyone jokes that I'm, like, moving closer and closer all the time.
HIGHT: In many ways, she's remained incredibly close to where she grew up. She still gets a little thrill watching for the blue-and-white sign on Interstate 24 that marks the Kentucky state line.
K WALDON: Give her a little honk.
(SOUNDBITE OF HONKING HORN)
K WALDON: Let her know (laughter).
HIGHT: Eventually, we reach the two-lane roads of Ballard County and pass a spot where her first home once stood.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KENTUCKY, 1988")
K WALDON: (Singing) Between walls of knotty pine, a brown trailer on wheels on a concrete foundation in the middle of a dove-huntin' field.
HIGHT: The hunting Waldon sings about was part of how the family got by, combined with long hours in offices, works and farm fields, fields whose original inhabitants she acknowledges on her new album "White Noise/White Lines."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).
HIGHT: Waldon got to know members of the Chickasaw Nation of Ada, Okla., when they came to perform ceremonies on nearby ancestral land. They stayed at her dad's hunting lodge here in Monkey's Eyebrow, Ky., where she learned as a child that burial mounds were not to be disturbed.
K WALDON: Yeah. That's just something we have known and respected the whole time since we've been here. And it's such a cultural part of this county, as well.
HIGHT: She also learned to spot arrowheads unearthed by floodwaters and farm tractors.
K WALDON: I might be able to find one, actually, even right here.
HIGHT: Waldon leads the way to a corner of the property where the dirt is loose and rutted. And her dad, Ricky, joins the search.
RICKY WALDON: Hey, come here a minute. Somebody look right at the bottom of this limb right here.
K WALDON: I'll let Jewly pick it up. Yeah, right there.
HIGHT: Did you plant this?
K WALDON: No way - promise you.
R WALDON: You cannot believe how much stuff is around here.
HIGHT: The rest of Waldon's family is still around here in the southwest corner of the state. So our next stop is her grandmother's house, where her mom, Kelly Harris, is waiting.
KELLY HARRIS: Hi. Hi. Come on in. I've got chicken salad - anything to eat? I have a corn on the cob, watermelon.
HIGHT: Her elders would sometimes play music for their guests. But Harris admits that skipped her generation. Still, she could see that her daughter was into it and invested in guitar lessons and basic recording gear.
HARRIS: At the time, I was divorced. And probably, we didn't have the money. But she loved it. And she would record it in our room. So she learned all about that.
HIGHT: That same precociousness showed up in a letter Waldon wrote to her future self for an eighth-grade assignment.
K WALDON: And in there, I'm like, you know, people - just because you're from Ballard County, you know, people might say you can't do it. But I really think I can do something in music. And, you know, I'm like, wow, how was I saying that in eighth grade?
HIGHT: In the years that followed, Waldon read music histories and studied the records of Patty Loveless, John Prine and Neil Young. In Nashville, she got her bachelor's in songwriting and slung beers at a honky-tonk. She started releasing music independently, intent on keeping the rural accent of her singing and songwriting.
K WALDON: When I was trying to find a home for this new record, you know, I had someone kind of be like, have you ever thought about getting a vocal coach? And then I went from that to John Prine saying he you could listen to me sing the phone book.
(SOUNDBITE OF KELSEY WALDON SONG, "ANYHOW")
HIGHT: Prine's label, Oh Boy, hadn't signed a new artist in a decade and a half when it got behind her new album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYHOW")
K WALDON: (Singing) When the sun sinks down and dreams start to drown and you still don't know who you are. Workin' the ground, pace like a dog in a pound, and you still only get so far. And I'd do it again even if I didn't know how. I'd learn how to make my own fire burn. To be knowing is to know how. I'd find out how to make my own sun shine to be knowing what I know now. I'd do it anyhow.
HIGHT: Waldon's dad may not know a lot about how her industry works, but he's proud of how she got where she is.
R WALDON: I mean, I couldn't ask for anything better out of a daughter. I can tell you that. She's strong-willed. She's been right there pushing the whole way, doing it the way she wanted to do it.
HIGHT: Kelsey Waldon was determined to expand her perspective without leaving her culture behind. At this polarized moment, she's very aware of how the people and place she comes from are perceived.
K WALDON: It kind of makes me hurt. I hate to hear anyone say, especially from Kentucky, oh, you're all just, like, hillbillies or rednecks. And it's like, well, some of that might be true. But it's a whole lot more than that, you know? You can still be very country and still believe in equal rights for all people. Like, there's a whole lot more dimensions there.
HIGHT: Dimensions that Waldon hopes people will hear in her songs. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNDAY'S CHILDREN")
K WALDON: (Singing) We all want the same things. We all... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.