Sometimes a word doesn't reveal its entire meaning upon first utterance. "Deadpan" is a word like that: It signals a certain comical lack of emotion, yet the great deadpan performers, like Buster Keaton in The General or Laurie Metcalf on Roseanne, communicate great depth of feeling with each slow melt. So, to be sure, calling Kelsey Waldon a fantastic deadpan singer is a compliment. On her second album, I've Got A Way, this plain talker from western Kentucky paints scenes from her own sentimental education within Nashville's vital young Americana/country scene, her delightfully direct language and delivery enhancing vivid musical settings that demonstrate her vast understanding of the traditions she mines.
I've Got A Way follows 2014's The Gold Mine, whose standout cuts surveyed coal-country life with a sharp but mournful eye. Sly understatement is a quality Waldon shares with Kacey Musgraves, another of Nashville's brightest delegates from small-town America — only Waldon's vibe is less stoned and more slightly sloshed on a couple of after-work beers. Several of Waldon's new songs tap into the essential American story of women "adrift," as they used to be called: making their way through cities after having left the comforts of a more rural home, dealing with predatory men and good-but-insensitive ones, figuring out how to realize ambitions within environments not designed for their protection. "I've been fightin' with my left side, fightin' with my right side, fightin' with everything I got," Waldon sings in "Dirty Old Town," a honky-tonker whose title must have been inspired by The Pogues. Brett Resnick's pedal steel, Waldon's strongest musical counterpart throughout the album, feigns and punches right alongside her.
Her fighting spirit is among Waldon's best attributes: It helps her tell off musical scenesters in "False King," assert feisty independence in "All By Myself" and salvage the fun of a fading romance in "Let's Pretend." But she also does tender beautifully. "I'd Rather Go On" is one of the most rational and touching breakup songs in recent memory. The minor-key "Don't Hurt The Ones (Who've Loved You Most)" is the kind of gently tear-stained moral lesson in which country-music women have excelled since the days of Kitty Wells, while the serenely moving "The Heartbreak" acknowledges the edifying aspects of pain in a way that George Jones would have appreciated.
Waldon grew up playing bluegrass and learning the songbooks of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, and she's built a band that can range from rockabilly to an expansive newgrass take on the Bill Monroe classic "Travelin' Down This Lonesome Road." Producer Michael Rinne makes sure everything sounds both clean and live. The way Waldon's take on "There Must Be A Someone" splits the difference between the two best-known versions, the more traditional one by the Gosdin Brothers and the singer-songwriterly spin by The Byrds, shows how deep her record collection goes. But it's the immediacy of her storytelling, utterly unsentimental yet deeply heartfelt, that makes Kelsey Waldon a queen of the cool rejoinder and an all-around contender.