(As published in the Illinois Entertainer, 2001)
When Gillian Welch spoke to the Entertainer in the fall of ’98, she was a big star in a small constellation. Her second album Hell Among the Yearlings (Almo Sounds) had just come out, establishing with its sepia-tinted cover and austere folk balladry her status as America’s foremost bearer of the Western folk-song tradition. Still, the percentage of record buyers who’d heard of that tradition was significantly smaller than the percentage who hadn’t, and, short of a full-scale media blitz (Ken Burns Folk?), no change loomed on the horizon.
Enter O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brothers’ film based on Homer’s Odyssey, starring George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson as chain-gang escapees on the lam in Depression-era Mississippi. In addition to demonstrating the cinematic possibilities inherent in mixing myth, slapstick, grim realism, and music, the film contains Welch’s first appearance on the big screen. Wearing a period-piece hat and glasses, she asks a clerk, “Do you have ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ by the Soggy Bottom Boys?” “No, ma’am,” he replies. “We’re all sold out.”
O Brother’s most enduring accomplishment, though, may turn out to be its discovery of a heretofore untapped audience for “old timey” music. As of this writing, its soundtrack has sold over two million copies and topped both Billboard’s “country” and “Internet” charts, a notable feat given the complete absence of contemporary country hitmakers from its nineteen-track program.
Overseen by T Bone Burnett, who also produced Welch’s first two albums, the soundtrack includes two performances by Welch--a duet with Alison Krauss on the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away” and a trio with Krauss and Emmylou Harris on Welch’s own “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” the latter of which is lip-synched in the film by three libidinously languorous “sirens” as part of a successful attempt to entrance and waylay the Clooney, Turturro, and Nelson characters. “Doing ‘Nobody but the Baby’ was good,” recalls Welch, who not only had the thrill of singing it with Harris and Krauss but also, as the song’s composer, found herself in the status-conferring position of teaching it to them.
Not surprisingly, they proved quick on the uptake. “After all,” she points out, “it’s a fairly repetitive song, seeing as it’s one part field holler.” Even repetitive songs, however, can pose challenges. “We had to have a little discussion about who would take the high parts and who would take the low part. I think Emmy is so often asked to sing the very high parts that whenever she has the opportunity, she loves to sing the baritone because no one’s ever asked her to do that. So she pretty much said, ‘I’ll take the baritone,’ and she sounds really great.”
Incidentally, the main reason for Welch’s current spate of interviews is to allow her to promote Time (The Revelator), her excellent, new, self-produced solo album and her first for Acony Records, the label she and her partner David Rawlings established in the wake of Almo Sound’s collapse. But she doesn’t mind discussing her association with the O Brother projects (she appears twice on Down from the Mountain [Lost Highway], a just-released recording of O Brother musicians performing live at the Grand Ol’ Opry’s Ryman Theater). Neither does she mind discussing her recent recordings of “Beulah Land” (on Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt [Vanguard]) or the folk ballad “Wind and Rain” (on Vanguard’s Songcatcher soundtrack). “I know it from the [Jerry] Garcia Acoustic Band,” she says of the latter. “I’ve sung it around the house for years but never performed it out or recorded it.”
Indeed, aspects of the artistic sensibility at work in Time (The Revelator) emerge even in the discussion of a topic as seemingly unrelated as “Wind and Rain.” For instance, Welch admits that she only heard the Garcia Band’s version (available on 1988’s Almost Acoustic as “Oh the Wind and the Rain”) one time, years ago, and therefore the lyrics she has committed to posterity are not necessarily those sung either by Garcia or by countless other balladeers throughout the centuries. “It’s the kind of song that, you hear it one time, and you remember the story,” she says, “but I couldn’t remember the specific verses, so we had to play fill-in-the-blanks. There’s some stuff in our version that’s never been around, and that’s O.K. Now other people will learn it with weird lyrics.”
She laughs at the irony of such a confession’s coming from her, an exemplar of roots authenticity admitting blithely to falsifying history. Only it turns out that perhaps reports of her fidelity to history may have been exaggerated, that, contrary to expectations often engendered by the very image that she herself has projected, she’d rather use, or even toy with, the past than venerate it.
Consider Time (The Revelator)’s central song, a seven-minute, forty-one-second song split into two tracks titled “April the 14th Part 1” and “Ruination Day Part 2,” and, like the rest of the album, pared down to nothing more than the yearning voices, acoustic guitars, and occasional banjos of Welch and Rawlings. Loosely constructed around events associated with significant and not-so-significant April 14th’s--the sinking of the Titanic, an indie band’s playing to no one at a godforsaken dive, the arrival of a great Oklahoma dust-bowl storm, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. But the song never says “Titanic,” referring only to “when the Iceberg hit.” It doesn’t specify the name of the band or why the “Okies” are fleeing. Instead of “Lincoln,” it simply refers to the “Great Emancipator” who takes “a bullet in the head.”
Welch isn’t particularly concerned that listeners, especially younger ones with bad grades in history, might not follow her allusions. “That’s O.K.,” she shrugs. “I mean, that’s the same thing with the word revelator. Someone might not know ‘John the Revelator’ [the gospel song from which Welch became acquainted with the word], but people have a reaction to that word anyway, in a vacuum, in a void. Something about that word has resonance for people, and I think the same thing’s true if you refer to the Great Emancipator. I may have a specific historical instance in mind, but I think it works even if you don’t know that, because it’s a good word.” Even if someone thinks she’s singing, say, about Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X. “I’m not particularly troubled by that. In fact, I’m almost more interested to see how people make their own sense of this stuff. It’s been really interesting so far.”
It could get more interesting. When the Beastie Boys quoted Steve Miller’s 1976 hit “Take the Money and Run” on License to Ill in 1986, millions were in on the joke, but Welch’s quotations from Miller’s 1968 non-hit “Quicksilver Girl” in “My First Lover” will no doubt mystify many a contemporary hipster, as might the verse in “Elvis Presley Blues” likening the King of Rock-and-Roll to the hammer-wielding folk hero John Henry.
The cut most likely to inspire “interesting” interpretations is the semi-title cut “Revelator,” a mysterious song that Welch renders even more so by not including printed lyrics in the CD booklet and by slurring them as she sings, freeing listeners to wonder whether the “fortune lady” in verse two “walked inside” or “walked and sighed,” or whether its last couplet is “clean and face and imitate her,” “cling and phase and imitator,” or something else entirely. One thing about which there’s no question: Welch begins verse four by singing “Leaving the valley, fucking outtasight,” a line as sure to hinder her induction into the Grand Ol’ Opry (which she’s played many times) as it is to accelerate her connection with the South Park generation.
Welch’s love for Time’s elusiveness extends to any discussion of the exact nature of her “partnership” with Rawlings (“Does it matter?,” she asks rhetorically). Yet there is one thing about which she’s adamant: the significance of the fact that Time’s cover is in color. Using black and white for the covers of Revival and Hell Among the Yearlings, she once said, “seemed appropriate” because the songs were “very stark” and “fairly dark in nature.”
Doesn’t she find the songs on Time stark and dark as well? “Give me some of what you’re having,” she sings in a dreamy, almost stoned voice on “I Dream a Highway.” “I’ll take you as a viper into my head, / a knife into my bed, / arsenic when I’m fed.” “Perhaps,” she answers, “but I see them as more colorful. There’s definitely more implied than is actually said, and there are larger musical arrangements implied than are actually there.
"I think there’s a broader palette.”