In 1976, I spent a term on teaching practice at Ledbury Grammar School in rural Herefordshire. It was idyllic. The school was in a large country house where some of the rooms were bigger than others. There was no streaming but some pupils were taught in the smaller (S) classrooms and some taught in the larger (L) classrooms. There were only two classes in each year so when I started teaching, I had 1L, 2S, 3L and 4S. At the start of February, I started looking for jobs and applied for a job as a Maths teacher at a school in Harlow, a town I’d never really heard of. At Half Term, I spent a few days at my parents’ house in Orpington. I popped out one day and on my return, my Mum was all of a fluster. “A Headmaster has been on the phone and he wants you to come for an interview tomorrow”. The next day, when I got to Liverpool Street, all trains had been cancelled. I phoned the Head, Max Poluter and we arranged that I would get the Underground to Epping and he would pick me up in his car. On the way from Epping to Harlow, we chatted informally about many things, most of which he interrogated me about during the subsequent interview, especially my attitude towards the Comprehensive system. He was a very clever bloke – he snapped me up as quickly as he could – I wasn’t to know that Maths graduates looking to teach were as rare as hen’s teeth. (I’ve never understood that idiom.) He was also clever in getting me into the school when there were no pupils there. My teaching practice at Ledbury Grammar School was no preparation at all for teaching at a Comprehensive School in a New Town. My first term’s teaching was a disaster as I was completely out of my depth, not having any behaviour management skills apart from looking completely out of my depth and hoping that these classes would magically shut up and listen, just for once.
At Christmas, a new Head of Department arrived. His name was Ted and he was brilliant for me. His time was mine to use up as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted. He was an inspiring teacher, a really nice bloke with a great sense of humour and he managed to mix positivity with firm guidance, letting me know how I could improve. Ted will forever be the one that helped me.
Kelsey Waldon was born in Kentucky and first played guitar when she was 13 years old. She was raised in the brilliantly named “Monkey’s Eyebrow”. When she left school, she moved to Nashville in order to try for a musical career. After a few years without major success, she enrolled in a songwriting and music business degree at Belmont University in Nashville. She self released three EPs and one full length album before her second album, “The Goldmine” attracted some interest and favourable reviews. Marissa Moss, writing in Rolling Stone, wrote that Kelsey Waldon was “like Tammy Wynette on a trip to Whiskeytown, as unafraid of heavy twang and spitfire pedal steel as coffeehouse confessionals.“
In 1981, John Prine set up his own record label in Nashville and called it “Oh Boy Records”. Many well known artists have released albums on Oh Boy, including Kris Kristofferson, Todd Snider and John Prine himself. The label has also re-released several classic albums by Merle Haggard, Joe Tex, Roy Acuff and Don Everly. In 2019, Kelsey Waldon was the first new artist to be signed to Oh Boy Records for more than 15 years. In early 2020, she toured Europe and was scheduled to support Drive By Truckers on an American tour before the pandemic brought everything to a halt. John Prine died on April 7th 2020 and he had been a champion of hers, regularly sharing the same bill and performing duets. She said “John and his wife Fiona were huge parts of my career. I think how special those last couple of years were and how happy he was. Nobody was ready for him to go. I don’t think he was ready to go. He had a whole other album he was about to record. His help, his mentorship and even his endorsement, I guess you could say, really pushed me to the next level. It elevated everything. John Prine will forever be the one who helped me.”
“White Noise/White Lines” is a country record and the musicianship reminds me of the swamp groove that Lucinda Williams has showcased in recent years. Her voice is emotional, tuneful and full of twang.
The title track concerns the fleeting nature of life and urges us all to free our minds and dream. She was inspired to write the song after witnessing a solar eclipse and meeting members of the Chickasaw nation of Ada. A chant that she recorded during her meeting closes the song.
“Kentucky 1988” begins with a snippet of a recording made by her father, proudly telling his friends that he has just heard his daughter on the radio. The song is wonderful and is a bleakly honest account of her early life when the family lived in a trailer and her parents fought. She realises that things were tough but she wouldn’t have it any other way. There was much beauty to be found and she acknowledges that Kentucky 1988 is in her DNA.
“Black Patch” tells the story of the Black Patch tobacco wars in Kentucky and Tennessee between 1904 and 1909. Black Patch was a type of tobacco, primarily used in snuff, chewing and in pipes. The American Tobacco Company (ATC) started paying reduced prices in order to promote their own product. An association of planters formed “The Dark Tobacco District Planters’ Protective Association of Kentucky and Tennessee” and unsuccessfully withheld their tobacco until the prices increased. As a result, many farmers formed vigilante groups, destroying crops, machinery, livestock and tobacco warehouses. A Kentucky State Guard finally arrested the leaders but by then, the ATC were paying more. Kelsey Waldon said “I always loved the vivid imagery in this also the idea of people standing up for their crop, their land, and what they got to work with. Working tobacco runs generational in my family and stripping it and planting it was one of my first jobs growing up. You could say this is my ode to local and family farms all over the world.” This is an up tempo song, more rock than country.
“Sunday’s Children” is lyrically simple and powerful. It’s a song that explains that we are being lied to and we should strive for a better world in which we can achieve our dreams.
This theme is further explored on the album’s closer “My Epitaph” which was written by an American folk singer called Ola Belle Reed. This is a slow, beautiful song which urges us all to be kind to each other and not to mourn her when she has died. One of my favourite TV programmes in recent years has been “Justified”, which is set in Kentucky and at one point, one of the characters sings an Ola Belle Reed Song called “High Mountain”.
The sleevenotes to this hugely enjoyable album thank John and Fiona Prine for “believing in my star“.