You could say that John Prine has changed Kelsey Waldon's life at least twice now, in episodes separated by more than a decade. First, she was a teenager figuring out music in western Kentucky. A vintage 1971 LP came her way with a blue collar man on a blue cover sitting on hay bales. In the grooves, she heard wit and pathos and characters that redefined what seemed possible in a song. Then, in the last couple of years, that same man, a songwriting icon who's found himself back in the national spotlight, decided to champion Waldon's music, signing her to his Nashville label, a reinvigorated Oh Boy Records.
"John is my hero," Waldon said in the weeks running up to the Oct. 4 release of her third album White Noise/White Lines. "I was raised on country and bluegrass and whatnot. But I really feel like when I heard John's music, that inspired me to really dig in. I started really getting obsessed with songwriting and country music under the surface. That record blew me away because it was like my bluegrass and country worlds coming together, but with this relevant, even punk rock attitude, (in the) songwriting. I was like, 'This is it.'"
In this, Waldon feels no different than countless music fans worldwide, not to mention Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson, all of whom revere Prine as a subversive Poet Laureate of folk music. The songwriter endured some rough going in the last twenty years, battling back two forms of cancer. But here in 2019, at 72 years old, John Prine is enjoying one of the highest-profile stretches of his career, with formal honors and reams of media coverage, mostly pegged to his 2018 album The Tree of Forgiveness.
Eileen Tilson, marketing director for Oh Boy Records, says that album's impact wasn't a foregone conclusion. "The success of the Tree of Forgiveness didn’t happen overnight," she said in an email interview. " We spent three years building up his email list, growing his social media following, connecting with younger artists that had cited John as their influence, obviously artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, but also artists from different genres, like Kurt Vile." They activated the label's large, legacy real-world mailing list with a postcard from Prine, followed by an old-school mail order campaign. The small Oh Boy team answered calls and packed CDs and LPs like it was the Ernest Tubb Record Shop circa 1955.
"All of these things came together," Tilson continued. "And we far outsold any projected numbers that we had thought about originally, making the album the most commercially successful record of John's career."
Parallel to this work, Oh Boy took steps to reposition itself as less of an artist boutique label and more of a player in the modern Nashville indie sector. Prine's original business partner and longtime manager Al Bunetta died suddenly in 2015, which sparked soul searching and restructuring. In early 2016, they hired on new people and announced that Prine had become the company's sole owner. They moved into a historic house in Germantown, next to two prime Prine haunts: The Butcher Shoppe recording studio and Monell's southern restaurant. Prine said at the time: “I feel really great about Oh Boy Records being a family-run business and I’m excited about this new phase for all of us."
"I think renewal's a good word to use," says Jody Whelan, John and Fiona Prine's oldest son and the label's operations manager. "There's been times in the past when Oh Boy has had a larger roster. It's been though peaks and valleys as the industry has changed. And I think now we have a better idea of what our identity is and how we can help an artist."
Enter Kelsey Waldon, 31-year-old songwriter from Monkey's Eyebrow, Kentucky and an exemplar of a recent hard country influx from her home state that includes Tyler Childers and Angaleena Presley. Her musical development came through church, county fair gigs and VFW halls where local youngsters would play shows with country, bluegrass and metal on the same bill.
Waldon says she's the only member of her family to leave Ballard County and strike out for a bigger city. But the village-like qualities of East Nashville provided a welcome setting to level up her writing and performing. Derek Hoke put her on his Two-Dollar Tuesday bills at the 5 Spot, and she did a Kickstarter campaign to make her first album. The personnel on Goldmine, from the summer of 2014, read like a who's who of the new Music City: producer Michael Rinne, steel guitarist Brett Resnick, fiddler Christian Sedelmyer. Her harmony singers, Erin Rae, Anderson East and Margo Price, have all emerged as national acts.
Waldon followed up with I've Got A Way in 2016, an album hailed by critics, including NPR which noted "the immediacy of her storytelling, utterly unsentimental yet deeply heartfelt." She says it's the project that got her out on tour. And it was on that album cycle that the Oh Boy team, Prine and his wife Fiona included, started talking intently with the songwriter. "I'd known the team for quite a while, but I finally met Fiona at an Oh Boy tribute," Waldon says in a new episode of WMOT's The String. Fiona told her that she and John were big fans. "I was taken aback by that! Eventually, Fiona (said) 'I promise you we'll get you on some shows. We really see what you're doing. And we love it.'"
The shows happened including a joint appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, and so did the conversations about releasing album number three. Curiously, Waldon says she made White Nosie/White Lines in late 2017 and that Oh Boy had no role in its production or its song selection. She just turned it in as fait accompli and Oh Boy is putting it out. This release week finds Waldon opening shows for Prine in California and St. Louis.
Oh Boy can be expected to sign new artists in the future, but the team there says it's in no hurry and they have no desires to get big. They're leading with an ethos baked into their 1981 origins, when Oh Boy was an ultra-rare artist-owned label. They've put out only music they cherished, including albums by Todd Snider, Kris Kristofferson and Shawn Camp. So there will be more to listen for from what Tilson called "Oh Boy 2.0."
"Not that it's been without challenges, but the fact we've been based in Nashville and the love and respect people have for John has really helped this project get off the ground and enabled us to keep it in the family," said Jody Whelan. "I don't know if our story could have such a sweet arc if we'd been based in another city. I mean the community here, from the artists, other managers, everybody that works in the industry, has been real supportive. We don't feel like we're in a competitive environment. We're all sort of working on the same project of keeping roots music alive."
For her part, Waldon couldn't be in a better place. “For a long time, I didn’t know where my home would be," she says. "With Oh Boy, it was like, 'Yes that makes complete sense.' I know they want to branch out. I feel completely honored to be in some small way part of John’s legacy. I’m not going to do him wrong. We’re wanting to give this project itself wings and watch it grow.”