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Ever since her 1996 debut, Revival, Gillian Welch has had to confront problems of credibility and genre definition. Prompted by the summer release of her follow-up, Hell Among the Yearlings, the New York Times published an apologia. With his masterful invocation of the Fogerty defense (Mr. Born-on-the-Bayou wasn’t, and what of it?), Mark Kemp should have put to rest any quibbles about her authenticity, but I have no doubt that Welch, whose writing draws on old-time folk, traditional, and early country music, will forever be plagued by reminders that she’s a Berklee-schooled bluegrasser from Cali whose parents wrote music for The Carol Burnett Show.
Welch wisely makes no attempt to hide her roots. She’s routinely pigeonholed as bluegrass, country, or folk, but she’s comfortable with being pop, and with pop’s ability to encompass the full range of American song, particularly the old stuff. Hell, named after a traditional fiddle tune, turns hard toward the Appalachianism that already ran through Revival. Aside from her occasional banjo, you rarely hear sounds other than the voices and acoustic guitars of Welch and her songwriting and performing partner David Rawlings. From the modal gospel of “Rock of Ages” to the weary plaints of the Jimmie Rodgers-inspired “My Morphine,” which slows down a blue yodel until it nearly dissolves, the songs on Hell are clearly the work of schooled singer-songwriters, but they are so faithful to the spirit of the works that inspired them that provenance is beside the point.
Scandalized naysayers observe that Welch isn’t the product of the milieu she sings about. But they have failed to notice two important things: 1) Pop listenersmainstream rock critics includeddon’t buy the records that arise out of that milieu, such as it exists today, and 2) if they did, they’d discover that the new songs by such artists have little to do with the traditions critics both ignore and “protect.”
This last point was driven home to me the better part of a decade ago at a local folk festival. Old-time balladeer Sheila Adams Barnhill sang the most harrowing, raw, and beautiful “Pretty Saro” I’ve ever heard, then switched to the stoolbound-singer-songwriter vein for a perfectly emetic original honoring her granny. Even when the contrast is not so pronounced and the effect not so disastrous, this genre shift is typical: From the Rankin Family to Jones & Leva, when trad-folk and old-time artists step out with songs of their own, the result is likely to owe more to whatever Borders and amazon.com have in their “folk” section than to inherited tradition. Just about everybody in North America is a member of what former Highwoods Stringband bassist Jenny Cleland has called “the post-isolated generation,” where “even if you grew up way back in the sticks you’ve got a satellite dish in your yard.”
What keeps the authenticity police on guard even now is their inability to address the earliest roots musics as anything other than museum pieces whose historical value is so great that their aesthetic value has ceased to exist. Welch and Rawlings love the more elderly of American roots enough that they’re not afraid to mess around with them a bit. Nowhere is the acuteness of their understanding better demonstrated than on Hell’s lead track. If you’re less than familiar with old-time tropes, “Caleb Meyer” looks like a typical expression of Appalachian gothic; in fact, the song is an inversion of the traditional murder ballad radical enough to have Tom Dula spinning in his grave. Murder ballads are usually related by either an omniscient narrator or a remorseful young man headed for the gallowsnot a woman who has killed her rapist. The drunken moonshiner of the song’s title attacks Nellie Cane, having teased out of her the news that her husband is doing business in town. As she lies under him, pleading for God’s angels to deliver her, she grasps the broken neck of the bottle Meyer threw down before setting upon her, and she cuts his throat. In lieu of his sexual release, she feels the flood of his blood “fast and hot/Around me where I laid.”
Friends, this is not the way God manifests himself in a traditional murder ballad. If He shows up, it’s generally as a judge, meting out forgiveness or, more commonly, perdition to the perp. Often, however, He’s absent. Having been insufficiently interventionist to protect the interests of the very real young women who got pitched in the drink, stabbed, bludgeoned, what have you, God was a tough character to fathom for balladeers chronicling true-life tragedies. With the latitude of the fictionist, Welch has given us a deity for our day: a responsive if removed force who delegates direct assistance to His angels, who go about the business of heaven with a rather perverse, almost sardonic, wit. Through their agency, earthly salvation is still a do-it-yourself affair, and the maintenance of belief is largely a question of attribution concerning matters that skeptics might term coincidence.
Welch and Rawlings aren’t by any means the first ’90s pop musicians to revisit the murder ballad, but “Caleb Meyer,” it should be noted, is a vast improvement over related genre attempts by the likes of P.J. Harvey, a scenery-chewer albeit an elliptical one, and Nick Cave, whose essays are to the Appalachian murder ballad what a black-light Steal Your Face poster is to the 17th-century vanitas.
American roots music has been under attack for some time, but right now the greatest danger comes from the forces of politesse. If you want to understand why hot-jazz repertory orchestras always sound so creepy, or why so many symphony patrons need to be helped to their seats, just keep your eyes on roots. You’ll get to watch the domestication process in real time.
We are being subjected to a campaign to recognize roots as a national treasure, its value conferred largely by the passage of time, with its arguments made on behalf of acts who are long on respect and short on fervor. If you want to witness the conspiracy toward roots palliation at full throttle, tune in any Sunday afternoon, when WAMU airs New Orleans-based D.C.-area émigré Nick Spitzer’s nationally syndicated American Routes. Spitzer’s got taste, all right, but that’s about it. Whether he’s playing the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, or Wynonie Harris, Spitzer makes sure he strips the music of any real force with his mollifying announcements. He’s the sort of fellow who thinks it irresponsible to play “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” without following up with a peppy cover of “Jambalaya” and (no kidding) the type of warning previously reserved for reining in overzealous Evel Knievel fans: Remember, don’t do it the way Hank did itif you wanna live!
The grimmest of recent signs of the taming of roots, though, is the nearly universal critical embrace of the worst album I’ve bought in recent memory. The 50-odd minutes after I walked out of Olsson’s with Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road are the angriest I’ve spent all year.
Williams, whose Southern enunciation sounds as if she picked it up from a novelty placemat (“Barb Warr: Whutcha keep yor hawgs pinned up wif’”) and who can be considered the new Gram Parsons only in the sense that their best songs were written by other people (hers: Randy Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go”; his: Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard’s “Streets of Baltimore”) is, bluntly speaking, a fraud. She favors the Prince-cum-vanity plate school of spelling (“2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten”), employs a guitarist named Gurf Morlix (and you thought Roddy Bottum was a joke name), and writes of driving “Thru Lafayette and Baton Rouge/In a yellow El Camino/Listening to Howlin Wolf” as if she had planned the whole thing out because she wanted to go on a date that was, you know, mythic. At least Tastee-Freez habitué John Cougar probably came across Jack and Diane by accident.
Welch and Rawlings prove that roots are accessible even to people not commonly thought to have been born with them, that what matters most isn’t autobiography but art. If you redefine roots, twist them into new forms, make them anew, and it all feels right, they are yours. If you crush them, dry them out, graft them into freakish shapes, treat them like botanical specimens, or venerate them to the point of absurdity, you’ve renounced any right to them you might have had.
Rawlings and Welch wisely understand that sometimes good songs are wild enough to go where they want to. And if you can’t hold on to them on a particular night…Well, Sting isn’t the only person who knows what to do when you love someone.
The new Birchmere, clean, cavernous, and boasting a tacky trompe le drunk stage-door backdrop that would be appropriate for a Hee Haw sketch set outside the Ryman Auditorium, is a tough venue for austere songs that shun showbiz glitz. The old Birchmere was better suited to the duo’s style. A couple of years ago, Welch and Rawlings gave Caleb Meyer and his kin what for. Even at the Barns of Wolf Trap last year, they were able to alternate between cozy banter and scarifying sounds. This time, though, the mood just wasn’t right. It was a comfortable, congenial show before a knowledgeable crowd brimming with goodwill. From the drowsy sway of “Barroom Girls” to the spacious harmonies that formed “I’m Not Afraid to Die” as thunder rumbled quietly outside, the emphasis fell on the musicianship, which was impeccable. Welch anchored the songs with her pinched vocals and steady rhythm guitar, while Rawlings filigreed the blank patches between verses with increasingly fluid leads. The words simply drifted up to the spotlights and burned off.
Between songs, Rawlings and Welch were personable as ever, poking fun at the pokiness of their tempos and the rarely relenting severity of their subjects, relating how they were so nervous when they played the Opry that they had marched offstage before Bill Anderson got in ary a whisper.
It was as if they were acknowledging that in concert a song sometimes takes its meaning from the audience, not the author. When a lyric can’t be properly channeled, it’s pointless to try to tether it. There are nights when what a song holds as storytelling pales next to its existence as shared experience, as an object of recognition. “These songs are bigger than we are,” Welch and Rawlings seemed to say. It takes humility to be willing to admit thatand talent for it to be true.CP