While some new music from Gillian Welch and her steadfast musical partner David Rawlings is long overdue, it’s nonetheless a pleasure to revisit the duo’s earlier work via Acony’s reissue of their first three albums and the international debut release of The Revelator Collection DVD. Welch’s influence on the Americana scene (and beyond) has become increasingly apparent in recent years, both in the wide range of musicians who have chosen to cover her songs and her own collaborations with artists including Emmylou Harris, Jenny Lewis, Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes, Robyn Hitchcock and The Decemberists, not to mention Ane Brun’s recent, reverent tribute song on Changing Of The Seasons [review]. There’s a timeless quality to Welch’s work which clearly appeals across the board, and it’s heartening that even in a noisy culture music as quiet as this can have such a significant impact. From a relatively limited palette of mainly guitar and vocals, Welch and Rawlings have fashioned bluegrass, blues, folk and country traditions into their own distinctive version of what Welch terms “American Primitive” music.
The unadorned nature of Welch and Rawlings’s work extends to the packaging of these reissues which offer nothing in the way of bonus tracks or new liner notes. With its statement-of-intent title, relatively straightforward storytelling, and appearances from Nashville stalwarts James Burton, Jim Keltner and Roy Huskey Jr., Welch’s 1996 debut Revival remains perhaps the most user-friendly and instantly accessible of the three albums, offering engaging, tightly constructed narratives and character sketches such as ‘Orphan Girl’, ‘Annabelle’ and ‘One More Dollar’. That said, despite T-Bone Burnett’s sympathetic production, and the individual appeal of almost all of its tracks, Revival is not a particularly well-structured album, and the juxtaposition of contemplative spirituals with a couple of rockers (‘Pass You By’ and ‘Tear My Stillhouse Down’) jars a little.
Starker, sparser and spookier, 1998′s Hell Among The Yearlings found the duo appropriating some of the genre’s quirkier tropes – a revisionist murder ballad on ‘Caleb Meyer’, the narcotised yodel on paean to addiction, ‘My Morphine’ – and cultivating an even more stripped and self-absorbed sound. Superficially, the album might be described as music to hang yourself to, but, contrary to reputation, it’s not an entirely grim experience: witness the simple beauty of the elegantly resigned ‘I’m Not Afraid To Die’ or the closing ‘Winter’s Come & Gone’, which welcomes a redemptive thaw after the frost.
Three years later, the self-produced Time (The Revelator) found Welch and Rawlings exploring more esoteric lyrical territory on the meandering, philosophically-inclined title track and the sweeping, ambitious two-parter ‘April The 14th’ / ‘Ruination Day’, which veers like a particularly wide-ranging motion picture from the assassination of Lincoln to the sinking of the Titanic to the Dust Bowl. The Napster-inspired ‘Everything Is Free’ brings the album right up to date, while the extraordinary 14-minute epic ‘I Dream A Highway’ closes proceedings with a Dylan-esque barrage of off-kilter imagery including a choice reference to Emmylou and Gram. The record also offers somewhat simpler pleasures in the shape of the timeless waltz ‘Dear Someone’, the standard-in-the-making ‘I Want To Sing That Rock & Roll’, and ‘My First Lover’ with its wonderfully strident banjo and Steve Miller references.
The DVD makes a lovely accompaniment to the albums, showcasing videos of ‘Elvis Presley Blues’, ‘My First Lover’ and ‘Revelator’, as well as a selection of live performances. If Welch and Rawlings seem somewhat ill at ease in the videos, they’re relaxed, wry and confident in front of a crowd. The previously unreleased original ‘Wichita’, and compelling covers of Bob Dylan’s ‘Billy’, Neil Young’s ‘Pocahontas’, Bill Monroe’s ‘I’m On My Way Back To The Old Home’ (with Rawlings taking the lead) and Townes van Zandt’s ‘White Freightliner Blues’ are standouts of the set.
Welch’s reedy, moody voice is not the kind that you fall for instantly. It doesn’t seem to develop much across the three albums either, but new depths and subtleties are revealed the more you hear it, and combined with Rawlings’s harmonies it can generate its own particular power. If there’s a criticism to be made of their music it’s that there’s not a lot of air in it: the close harmonies and intricate guitar work can feel a bit claustrophobic and arid after a while. Perhaps conscious of this, the pair expanded their horizons on their last album, 2003′s Soul Journey, resulting in a work of greater spaciousness and spontaneity.
Another criticism that is sometimes made is that these two Berklee Music School grads are simply playing at being hillbillies, assuming the externals of these genres without the lineage. Viewed cynically, Welch and Rawlings can seem to be the duo for listeners who prefer their country music not to be made by actual country people. This might, perhaps, account for the lack of deep emotional punch to their work, the fact that, although always engaging and sometimes fascinating, their music is never really moving in the way that, say, Iris DeMent’s is. But while there are all kinds of debates about ancestry and authenticity, roots music and roots, that might be had about Welch and Rawlings’s work, the sincerity of their love and respect for the musical traditions they’re immersed themselves in is never in doubt. (Re-)acquaint yourself with these fine records and look forward to their new album due later this year.
UK release 02/03/09; www.myspace.com/gillianwelch
‘Time (The Revelator)’