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Country Homage Two Ways: Bahamas And Kelsey Waldon

As I say in the opening of Episode 281 of The String, there are countless reasons to pay homage to the legacy of country music and almost as many different ways to do so. Because I felt that both of my guests this week - the Canadian artist Bahamas and Nashville’s Kelsey Waldon - are doing just that in their own ways with recent projects. At a time when country traditions are strong across the Americana landscape, Bootcut by Bahamas and There’s Always A Song by Waldon demonstrate the power of devotion to a craft on one hand and celebration of heroes on the other.

Bahamas is the performing name of Afie Jurvanen, who grew into his music career as a guitar-playing sideman in the Toronto music scene, including work with the Weather Station, Jason Colette of Broken Social Scene and most conspicuously the star songwriter Feist. Jurvanen brought a lot of those indie rock and folk influences to his music as Bahamas over a half dozen albums since 2009, and he has four Juno Awards to show for it. With Bootcut though, he leaned deliberately into country music, from the writing to recording in Nashville with the dreamy pedal steel guitar of Russ Pahl. The pivot was so powerful he earned a slot at last fall’s Americanafest and a debut on the Grand Ole Opry, all on release weekend.

Jurvanen tells me that while country music has never been at the heart of his identity as an artist, it has always inspired him with its potency for storytelling and narrative. “And you can use certain tools as a writer like irony, and humor,” he says. “Those things are a lot harder to use in indie music, or rock music. Country music sort of welcomes those - anything that propels the story along. The thing I sort of gravitate towards most in other people's music is when you have that combination of salty and sweet, you know? If it leans too far into one that tends to turn me off. So yeah, I think country music really welcomes that.”

Indeed the opening cut (after a charming home recording intro of his daughters vying for his attention) is “Just A Song,” which wryly celebrates the power and limits of the art form. With a crafty inner rhyme he sings that “еvery misplaced note/ Thе ones I stole, the ones I wrote/ All just self-inflicted wounds.” His homage to his instrument “Working On My Guitar” is even richer with inside jokes and wise, tender observations. “Second Time Around” opens with pealing pedal steel and tells a story not of a country divorce but of a renewal of vows shot through with wistful tenderness. But the song that sticks with me and hits me hardest is the closer “Nothing Blows My Mind.” It’s somber and sad, just voice and piano. written from a place of grief with a prayer for catharsis.

“I was thinking about a lot of different things at that time,” Jurvanan says. “I've tried to sing about my father so many different ways from so many different angles. My father left before I was born. I never had a relationship with him. And I think especially now that I have three daughters of my own…you get a second chance to sort of revisit all this stuff, the good and the bad. Realizing that I just never had that relationship has obviously been challenging in many ways, but I've just tried to explore that as a songwriter from many different angles.”

Proving it’s not all wit and guile with Bahamas.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Kelsey Waldon followed her muses down some well-beaten old roads for her newest, There’s Always A Song. After five albums of original songs, two of them on John Prine’s Oh Boy Records label, the Kentucky native found herself drawn to collaborations and celebrations of the music that shaped her growing up. A session with S.G. Goodman, an old Kentucky friend who’s seen her own star rise in the indie country world, led to a feisty take on the Carter Family’s iconic “Hello Stranger.” Other sessions followed, leading to “Traveling The Highway Home,” first cut by Molly O’Day and Lynn Davis in 1951, sung here with Margo Price. An a cappella study of Jean Ritchie’s “Keep Your Garden Clean” opens the record, letting us hear Waldon’s lonesome voice in a new, vulnerable way.

“I've loved this music almost since I opened my mouth and started singing, you know?” she says about her motivations for taking this side trip between self-penned albums. “And I feel like a lot of times we get into a competitive way. But you know, at the end of the day, I just wanted to remember why we love pickin’ parties or why things feel like joyful community.” Near the end of our talk, she says that “it's just really important for me to release an album of songs like this. You know, it's just such an important part of my lineage as an artist and a person. And to do it in my own voice.”

I suggest to Kelsey that in some ways, it’s her job to keep resurfacing and singing songs like the ones here. And she agrees, with a caveat. “I didn't want this to be presented as like, Oh, you're bringing back the music of yesteryear,” she says, adopting a faux old-timer’s voice. “That is not what this is. This music is to be respected. I think I said this on the back of the vinyl, but it (this music) was here long before me and it'll be here long after me and anybody else. Like it's got the secrets to life. You know? It's like those ancient melodies that never go out of style. I mean, it's just forever hip to me.”

We also talk about Kelsey’s life in rural Cheatham County, how bringing fiddler Libby Weitnauer into her band shook up its old-time energy, and the impact of losing John Prine, four years on.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>