Time (The Revelator)
The first recorded appearance of Gillian Welch arrived by proxy,
courtesy of the great Emmylou Harris, who chose Welch's song "Orphan
Girl" as one of the tracks on her 1995 comeback album Wrecking
Ball. Welch was in good company: Harris' disc collected songs
written by such established names as Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Anna
McGarrigle, Neil Young, Julie Miller, Lucinda Williams and Jimi
Hendrix. "Orphan Girl" fit right in, but just who was Welch, and
where did she come from?
Some answers arrived a few months later, when Welch's debut disc
A doggedly old-school album that embraced the more traditional elements
of country, bluegrass, blues and folk, Revival immediately
established the then Boston-based Welch as one of folk's most talented
young practitioners. An excellent second album, Hell Among the
Yearlings, further ratified that sentiment, but that was back
in 1998, and a lot has changed since then.
Gillian Welch and partner
David Rawlings make everything
old new again.
Specifically, three major events have galvanized folk lovers and
newcomers alike, lending Welch's music some cultural context and
setting the stage for her highly anticipated third album, Time
(The Revelator). A month after Hell Among the Yearlings
arrived, Harry Smith's lauded 1952 Anthology of American Folk
Music made its modern debut as a coveted six-disc set. Around
the same time, Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind announced the
wandering artist's return from the wilderness. Lastly, the 2000
release of the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?
and its corresponding soundtrack--still selling briskly--thrust
early Americana into the spotlight, introducing (and reintroducing)
thousands of listeners to the joys of old-time traditional music.
This trinity of crossover folk shares something in common besides
genre. Notably, each finds a way to present folk music not just
as a style but as part of a continuum, a mythology, a vital component
of American history and a reflection of storytelling traditions.
Smith traversed the country in search of authentic representations
of Americana --spare, spooky music barely touched by time and deep
with meaning. "Anthology" was just the right word, since the rich
set exists like a collection of great short stories.
Artists like Dylan helped enshrine the Smith anthology as perhaps
the key lexicon of American folk music. It was a Rosetta Stone of
song. Dylan's most recent comeback returns the songwriter to this
world of mythology, or at least myth-making, but this time his own
brush with death is the subject. Time Out of Mind is like
a collection of haunting murder ballads, with Dylan himself as the
victim. It's the oldest tale in the book--death--cloaked by Daniel
Lanois' production, the pinnacle of modernity (he lent a similar
touch to Harris' Wrecking Ball). The eerie loops and instrumentation
frame what is in essence a very old-fashioned album, a portrait
of the artist as an old man.
If Dylan's disc aligned the artist's life with the legendary, half-fictional
folk tales and subjects featured on Smith's anthology, and Smith
assembled his rough-hewn fieldwork into something akin to a reference
tome, then the deft hybrid O Brother, Where Art Thou? did
something even more audacious.
The film parallels the tall tales and murder ballads of American
folk with Homer's Odyssey. The film's soundtrack features
artists both old (like bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley) and young
(like Welch, also billed as an associate producer) performing songs
drawn from America's rich tapestry of mysterious, authorless songs
and introducing new compositions that continue the tales (tall or
otherwise) begun in the Appalachians and other such outposts. Even
more than the movie itself--a juxtaposition of ancient Greek literature,
Depression-era screwball comedy and modern style--the soundtrack
seamlessly blends past and present so that contemporary compositions
are given the weight of well-traveled traditional songs.
Passing off the new as old is a scam, but it's an essential component
of myth-making nonetheless. She may present herself as a no-frills
folkie, but Gillian Welch, who attended the Berklee School of Music,
is as urbane as they come. Still, if you close your eyes, it's not
hard to imagine Welch coming from another time and place.
Welch's new album, produced by longtime partner David Rawlings
and released on her own independent Acony label, is starker than
her earlier albums, with Welch sticking primarily to acoustic guitar
and banjo and putting her weary vocals way up front. You can even
hear her stomping her foot during "My First Lover." Having discovered
a rich niche of inspiration, she doesn't sound eager to stray from
her stripped-down sound, but that's part of the disc's ascetic pleasures.
Welch seems wary of breaking the illusion, but she enjoys dancing
around the clash of old against new. "I Want To Sing that Rock and
Roll" somehow delivers the promise of the title without veering
from Welch's adamant folk allegiance. Likewise "Elvis Presley Blues"
manages to recall the halcyon pre-Elvis days from a distinctly post-Elvis
vantage, while the epic, 14-minute "I Dream A Highway" nods to Dylan
while adhering to the type of hypnotically simple structure Dylan
himself frequently has subverted.
Throughout the disc, however, Welch is subsumed by her faithful
recreations of a different era's music. If Harris collected her
songwriting peers on Wrecking Ball like she was compiling
a contemporary edition of Smith's Anthology, Welch's own
work aims to be more anonymous. Welch may have written all of her
own songs, but she treats them with the reverence and dusty distance
of interpretation. Time (The Revelator) is an anthology of
songs someone could very well have written 100 years ago, but in
her own roundabout fashion Welch just got there first.
Why do we seek out these illusions, this modern mountain music
that sounds as old as the country itself? The mainstream support
of Americana may portend the latest return of a cyclical coping
cycle. The economy is faltering, the government is untrustworthy
and a debate rages as to whether the entertainment we enjoy is slowly
destroying us. When faced with adversity we turn toward the familiar;
the prevailing cynicism of the early 21st century only masks the
romanticism that has always marked this country. By turning to America's
past, perhaps we can somehow ignore the blights and disappointments
of the present. More than most forms, folk at its heart is about
passing feeling down from person to person, sharing joy and sorrow
through song, and that sense of community is what keeps folk music
Against the abrasive, disposable fabric of pop culture, Welch arrives
offering something that whispers to be held. Tapped into yesterday,
she successfully pulls off the time-traveling trick: She bridges
the past to the present while simultaneously leading the dialogue
forward. It's an illusion, to be sure, but even grasping at ghosts
is better than grasping at nothing at all.
Joshua Klein is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago.