Gillian Welch and David Rawlings Go Their Own Way In American Music.
By Brendan Doherty
SINGERS DON'T NECESSARILY have to live the lives they sing about. Bonnie Raitt, for example, studied at Harvard before studying the lost blues song manner of Sippie Wallace. John Fogerty had perennially dry feet in San Francisco when he wrote "Born on the Bayou," and made his first trip to that place of song in 1995. Gillian Welch sings like she's a character talking out of a Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans WPA photograph--by turns, the blight of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, a moment of repose among other women in Pie Town, New Mexico.
Her sepia-toned songs are spare, and they warn that the rural life is little more than toil and trouble. Her acoustic duets with David Rawlings could be high-fidelity songs a near descendant of the original Carter family would play. But don't call them Appalachian revivalists.
"People look at the way we present ourselves, and they're lulled by our acoustic demeanor and recording," says Welch. "It sounds like something you know--the Carter Family and other things. But there's a lot of stuff going on in there that isn't the Carter Family. We grew up listening to Neil Young, so it can never be as pure as the Carter Family.
"We play as an acoustic duet," she adds. "I work in that older format of singer and guitar. What's actually going on with the story of the song, the subject matter and the emotional tone is very modern. The songs are different, and my God, what David Rawlings is doing...it's not traditional at all. If you plugged him in to somebody's amplifier, I think people would stop calling us Appalachian traditional. He wouldn't change a thing except presentation. With the traditionalists, you change one note, and it's not traditional at all."
On their most recent CD, the masterful Hell Among the Yearlings (Almo), produced by the famed T-Bone Burnett, Welch sings the lives of several characters, leaving the listener wondering who Welch really is. In "Caleb Meyer," Welch doesn't have to be the woman who kills the man who tries to rape her. Nor does she have to be the man who contemplates his sins in "Good Till Now," or the morphine addict in "My Morphine." Her new songs are about work and weariness. It may not be the best time in economic terms to sing about that subject, but her 1930s inflected cast of migrant and misfit stories are bigger than any bull market. There will always be people who tragically turn to the bottle or the Bible to escape terrible situations, and listeners who feel better at the door of someone more miserable who sings as if her life depended on it.
"There are lots of reasons why it's a great time to be singing folk music," says Welch. "Look at who was nominated for a Grammy this year in the Contemporary Folk category: Wilco, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle. These are a bunch of high-powered artists who weren't aligned with this category of music. People are standing up and saying, 'I'm part of this Americana thing.' It's never been an established genre or movement, but it's encompassing."
Welch's own 1996 Grammy-nominated debut disc, Revival, sparked a wicked spate of press. Rolling Stone, among other publications criticized Welch because she was from California and not Tennessee. Welch is the daughter of Hollywood songwriter parents who composed songs for television, including The Carol Burnett Show. It may be that her response to them, a more personal sentiment, may be found on the song "Whiskey Girl." In it, Welch sings as a woman who drinks to stay with a loser and says "don't you know that it ain't a crime, if all the squares and the junkmen think you're out of line."
Welch grew up very close to the bluegrass hotbed of Santa Cruz, California--a scene that brought Laurie Lewis, among others, to the genre. While attending the University of Santa Cruz, Welch says she fell in love with the music of Ralph Stanley. She went to the Berkelee School of Music in Boston, and met Rawlings, her accompanist, in 1991.
"I took every damn songwriting class there," says Welch. "And I didn't feel like sticking around. We were really outsiders there. It's mostly all heavy-metal people and jazz-heads. When I met David, we just started playing old-time country music together."
Writers undeservedly cursed her for her success, continuing to criticize her for not being predictable, or being the vessel for their mythic ideas about sparse acoustic music and where it should come from. Welch and Rawlings' style is more closely related to what country music seems to have been before 1950, rather than, say, Shania Twain.
"Maybe we're just going to be pigeon-holed as Appalachian traditional," says Welch. "But if you add a banjo and a fiddle, we're bluegrass. Add a bass and drums, and we're in that alternative country thing. We've really struggled to keep the side musicians at bay. They're everywhere. Talk about selling records, I think that's the quick recipe for greater commercial appeal. So screw it."
As Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris might attest, love of the music is not a birthright, but an earned right.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 18, at the UASocial Sciences auditorium. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17.50 day of show, and are available at Zip's on University, Guitars Etc., Hears Music, Antigone Books and Enchanted Earthworks. For more information call 529-0356.
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