August 03, 2020 at 06:09PM
Gillian Welch’s Appalachian music has a sombre power
GILLIAN WELCH is not a prolific musician. She has made only five solo studio albums of original material and none since “The Harrow & the Harvest” (2011), a quietly devastating masterpiece. Nonetheless, she is one of the outstanding American music-makers of the last quarter-century. She has, in her discreet way, made radical use of two of America’s oldest popular styles, bluegrass and Appalachian. Ms Welch’s voice is a virtuoso instrument matched by the instrumental technique of her musical partner, David Rawlings, who can make anything with plucked strings sing. Her best work may feel as old as the hills from which it draws its inspiration, but it also possesses a singular modernity.
Ms Welch grew up in a very different world to the one that birthed the sounds she loves. She was raised on the coasts, in New York and California, by adoptive parents who worked in music and show business. (She discovered, later in life, that her biological mother may have come from the North Carolina mountains where her music also originated.) In this much, she is a fairly typical revivalist. Music which began in mountains, fields or factories is later taken up on campuses and in cosmopolitan cities, and treated with a certain sentimentality. Yet one of Ms Welch’s strengths is her understanding of how unsentimental this music was in the first place, and she has adapted and built upon it. As America hurls itself back towards an imagined past, Ms Welch has refashioned the real one to fit America’s anxious present.
She issued her first album, the aptly titled “Revival”, 24 years ago. It is her most traditional record by some distance and it has that haunted, plaintive, eerie quality that marks out its sources. Ms Welch had not yet developed the lyrical shrewdness with which she would later refashion this music for the 21st century, yet something set it apart from mere pastiche. To the stark and raw emotiveness of her borrowed genres, Ms Welch brought a scholar’s eye that could only have belonged to a present-day artist. The record made her a cult star.
Ms Welch has since been key to the transformation of roots revival music from a left-field and somewhat academic interest to a mainstream success. In 2000 Ms Welch’s then producer, T Bone Burnett, the éminence grise of what is lately called Americana, prominently featured Ms Welch and Alison Krauss, her most substantial artistic peer in her field, on his multi-platinum soundtrack for the Coen Brothers film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. With Robert Plant, Ms Krauss would go on to have one of Americana’s biggest hit albums, “Raising Sand” (2007), produced by Mr Burnett. Ms Welch herself has never sold records in such numbers, although her later albums have performed very well in the Independent and Folk charts.
The America Ms Welch depicts across the body of her work is often distinctly contemporary. Sharecropping and moonshine are replaced by minimum-wage shiftwork and heroin (“Becky Johnson bought the farm/Put a needle in her arm…”). Melancholy becomes depression (“I hear the shadows a-calling/To a girl with a dark turn of mind”). Depression-era drifters are replaced by more up-to-date vagabonds, although their fates—isolation, addiction, prostitution—may be identical. When she does look back, she takes full advantage of that hindsight. “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll” and “Elvis Presley Blues” are both brilliant critical commentaries on American pop history; the first celebrating the electrification her own music largely eschews (“everybody been making a shout/So big and loud, been drownin’ me out”), the second a perfect evocation of Presley’s genius.
Although fans have had no new music written by Ms Welch for nearly a decade, 2020 is proving a rich year for them. She and Mr Rawlings recently issued a digital-only album of cover versions, “All The Good Times”. Only three weeks later, on July 31st, Ms Welch released the second work in a series of archive anthologies, “Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs Vol. 1”. There are two more volumes in the offing, adding up to a treasure trove of 48 unheard songs.
These “Boots” albums—the first featured demos and outtakes; the new release, previously unissued older numbers—inevitably call to mind Bob Dylan’s long-running “Bootleg” series. Ms Welch is not diminished by the comparison: as with Mr Dylan’s collections, the listener frequently marvels at how good the unreleased songs are and wonders why they were shelved. “Boots No. 2” steers close to the spare feel of her first record, rather than the more expansive sounds and structures she favoured in her album releases. This collection of “lost” songs is a welcome addition to an oeuvre that for all its quality can certainly do with more quantity.
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/08/03/gillian-welchs-appalachian-music-has-a-sombre-power
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