(As published in the Illinois Entertainer, 1998)
When Gillian Welch's first album, Revival (Almo Sounds), appeared in 1996 on a label notorious for being home to the overtly sleazy Garbagewoman Shirley Manson, it hardly seemed hell-bent for controversy. What, after all, could be less controversial than a twenty-eight-year-old woman strumming an acoustic guitar and singing plaintive ballads that went "When He calls me / I will be able / To meet my family / At God's table"?
Nevertheless, Welch ended up starting a rather heated debate in the editorial rooms of America's music magazines: Did a young woman who grew up in Hollywood, who didn't start listening to bluegrass until she was in college, and whose parents actually wrote music for The Carol Burnett Show have the right to pass herself off as some latter-day combination of the Stanley Brothers and Emily Dickinson?
Strange as it now seems, some of the sharpest, freshest, most affecting, and least affected music to shuttle down the major-label pipeline in years was actually on the verge of getting lost in an anemically academic debate--a debate, by the way, that was settled over thirty years ago when Hibbing, Minnesota's Robert Zimmerman moved to New York and emerged as Bob Dylan.
The debate eventually subsided, but not before surfacing once more in the August 9, 1998, issue of the New York Times. In an editorial headlined "So What's All The Fuss About 'Keeping It Real'?," Mark Kemp, MTV's vice-president for music development, paraphrased the central question thus: "Which is more genuine, the artist who is committed to the art of artifice or the one who uses real tragedy to land a hit single?"
Kemp proceeded to argue persuasively that "[s]trictly using the facts of an artist's background as a barometer of his or her honesty not only has become tedious but is also downright lazy thinking." Still, the very idea that he or anyone else has to defend Gillian Welch's music against such charges--especially when "Everyone lies about sex" has become a national mantra--is itself provocative. (Admittedly, "All singer-songwriters lie about their roots" isn't much of a soundbite.)
Perhaps the most ironic twist of the entire fracas is that even the Los Angeles Times's Robert Hilburn, whose reputation rests in large part on the few interviews he has conducted with Bob Dylan over the last twenty years, felt obliged to begin his positive review of Hell Among the Yearlings, Welch's latest album, with the following disclaimer: "Once you get past the fact that Welch is from West L.A. rather than the Appalachia you'd expect...."
The good news is that neither Welch nor her fans seem to care about her past, not when her present offers more musical riches than one can shake a Grammy-winning Anthology Of American Folk Music at. Like Revival, Hell Among the Yearlings finds Welch, her musical partner David Rawlings, and her producer T Bone Burnett eschewing nearly everything but acoustic guitars and an occasional banjo in their pursuit of that rarest and most delicate of pop-music commodities: a clear vision.
Welch, now thirty-one, began writing songs when she was in junior high. Although she has no plans to record her juvenilia or shop any of it around, she readily defends the relative merits of her precocious work. "They're not bad songs," she says. "They're a little more confessional than what I do now, but they're not terrible." As proof against more charges of revisionist self-history, she has preserved the notebook in which she wrote her early efforts, but, she says, "about the only people who've seen those are my parents."
If only for nudging contemporary songwriting away from confessionality, the music world owes Welch a debt of thanks. Instead of "expressing herself," she expresses something bigger, older, and more important. Just what it is she's hesitant to say. Like so many musicians, she has a hard time categorizing herself, laughingly referring to her work as "whatever genre you want to call what I do."
One reason that tags do not adhere to Welch's music is that all of her songs are co-credited to Rawlings, rendering the term "her songs" somewhat ambiguous. Another is that the tag has yet to be invented for music like Welch's: Ancient-sounding yet new, it's both more and less than the sum of its influences.
Its "folk" elements have made her a favorite at folk festivals around the country, and indeed fans of Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson will hear plenty to like in a songs such as "One Morning" and "Miner's Refrain," as will fans of Nick Drake in "Whiskey Girl." It was, however, the bluegrass and country communities that extended her the warmest welcomes when, after two years at Boston's Berklee College, she moved to Music City.
"When I moved to Nashville, I had about four songs that I would play for people," Welch recalls. "I knew that I needed to spend more time writing." Securing a publishing deal, she was able to stop adding to her growing list of day jobs and "really be a full-time writer."
It wasn't long before her efforts began to bear fruit. Kathy Mattea recorded "Patiently Waiting" and "455 Rocket," Trisha Yearwood recorded "Two Days from Knowing," and Emmylou Harris recorded "Orphan Girl," the song with which Welch would eventually lead off Revival. "That's how a lot of people first heard of me," says Welch of Harris's cover.
Not to be outdone, the bluegrass community also began helping themselves to Welch's expanding output. Tim and Molly O'Brien recorded "Orphan Girl" and "Wichita," Valerie Smith recorded "Red Clay Halo," and the Nashville Bluegrass Band recorded "Red Clay Halo," "One More Dollar," and "Tear My Stillhouse Down," the last two of which, like "Orphan Girl," also turned up on Revival. "I was really embraced by the bluegrass community in Nashville first," she says.
Being embraced by bluegrass musicians was fine with Welch, who describes herself as "a big fan of 'brother-team' music." "The early Monroe Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, the Stanley Brothers--that stuff had a pretty big impact on me." Especially the Stanley Brothers. "I don't think I'd be doing what I do if I hadn't heard them. Ralph Stanley's singing is probably one of the biggest vocal influences on me."
One of the biggest conceptual influences on her has been bluegrass's frequent exhumation of Scottish, English, and Appalachian ballads. "Most of the best ballads have as their subject a tragic incident," writes E. Talbot Donaldson in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, "often a murder or accidental death, generally involving supernatural elements." Substitute the phrase "Welch's songs" for "best ballads" and you have a perfect description of the songs on Revival and Hell Among The Yearlings.
The tragic incidents on Revival include the death of a child ("Annabelle"), the destruction of a life through gambling ("One More Dollar"), and the destruction of a life through moonshining ("Tear My Stillhouse Down"); on Hell Among the Yearlings there's an attempted rape and a murder in self-defense ("Caleb Meyer") and the destruction of a life through drugs ("My Morphine").
As for supernatural elements, Welch's songs are a primer in old-time religion. References to Christ the Savior, the Devil, heaven, and hell abound. "Till my body gives out / Gonna read the gospel pages" she sings in "Rock Of Ages," "Satan he lives / In my whiskey machine" in "Tear My Stillhouse Down."
"I've definitely listened to a lot of ballads," says Welch, who numbers "She's More to Be Pitied," "Pretty Polly," and "The Butcher's Boy" among her favorites. "The Devil Had a Hold of Me" (Hell Among The Yearlings) even contains a direct reference to the latter, while "Barroom Girls" (Revival) owes an obvious debt to "She's More to Be Pitied."
"They're very archetypal, to use a big word," laughs Welch. "They're very profound stories. They cut very deep, and they touch on some really basic emotions and human responses. That's part of what I respond to in the music, and that's part of why I write the way I do. I'm hoping to touch on that stuff too."
She's also hoping to gradually broaden her palette, and not only sonically. For her next album cover, the former photography major says that she's considering something other than the sepia-tinted black-and-white images that have adorned her first two releases. "That seemed to really suit this collection of songs. They were very stark and fairly dark in nature, but we're actually thinking of using color next time!"
To a music business that already finds Welch controversial, a color cover will probably rank with Dylan's going electric. If it does, Welch will deserve every bit of the ensuing acclaim.