When Gillian Welch plays to a sold-out crowd this week at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, it will be in a format quite familiar to her fans. There will be two mics, a few guitars and maybe a few passes at a harmonica. She'll be joined by longtime partner David Rawlings, whose microscopic harmonies and intuitive guitar picking are inextricably linked with Welch's style one that is musically spare but lyrically arresting and thematically dense.
But while most consider the Nashville musician to be a singer-songwriter squarely in the country tradition, Welch has spent the past few years lending her talents to some of indie-rock's best-loved bands. A quick YouTube search finds Welch and Rawlings performing with Emmylou Harris, the Decemberists, Norah Jones and M. Ward, to name a few. This year the duo appeared on Cassadaga, the latest album by Bright Eyes, and in March Welch and Rawlings took the stage in Nashville with former Soft Boys leader Robyn Hitchcock as part of a band that included R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. Not bad company for a singer who was once the well-guarded secret of No Depression subscribers.
While the one-offs and guest spots have increased her profile in the past few years, Welch's career is simply following a progression that finds her melding the sound of acoustic folk music with the restless and sometimes destructive spirit of rock & roll. Her 1996 debut, Revival, is an album whose title hinted at not only a spiritual renewal but also a return to the expertly plucked guitars and fine-tuned harmonies of acoustic country music. The gospel of "By the Mark" flows into the biographical but similarly faith-filled "Orphan Girl." Ten years after its release, the album remains a deceptively simple recording. 1998's Hell Among the Yearlings continued in the vein of Revival, albeit with darker overtones: The opening murder ballad "Caleb Meyer" veers toward Gothic Americana, and "My Morphine" is both languid and intoxicating as it equates bad love with chemical dependence.
But when Welch eventually transcended her old-timey affectations she did it subtly, with the release of 2001's Time (The Revelator). Over the course of ten songs, she explored her relationship with rock & roll within country's idiom in an attempt to place herself and her songs in the constellation of American songwriters.
The album begins with "Revelator," a dirge that starts off with four slightly discordant guitar notes, as Rawlings plays a tone that burrows into the ear with all the subtlety of an ice pick. By the time Welch sings the first couplet, it's clear the uneasiness is mutual: "Darling remember, when you come to me/I'm a pretender and not what I'm supposed to be." It's both a lover's lament and a statement of purpose, an admission to her listeners that those expecting a full-on Appalachian folk revival will be disappointed.
The deception that Welch sings of in "Revelator" is one that guides the rest of Time; the alt-country queen had made a full-on rock & roll record in the quietest, most clandestine way possible. With nothing more than two voices, two guitars and the occasional banjo, Welch and Rawlings abandoned any notion of being perceived as "authentic" country stars (as if such a beast existed). Instead, they used their hand-hewn aesthetic to sing of topics more readily found on the FM rather than the AM dial: making out to Steve Miller songs, being transfixed by a garage band in a basement dive and simply wanting to sing rock & roll music.
At a 2000 concert event at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium to celebrate the music of the Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (in which Welch has a cameo), the duo debuted a song called "I Want to Sing That Rock & Roll" with such conviction that it seems analogous with "that old-time religion" of which their forebears sang. The recording of the song from that concert ended up on Time (The Revelator), and by the time Rawlings finishes one of his mind-bending, spider-fingered solos, the crowd's rapturous approval elevates the experience to near-transcendence. Little did they know that country's saviors were singing about switching to the dark side in the Ryman, the most hallowed ground in country music.
In an album so focused upon the myth of American music and the question of authenticity, no one looms larger on Time than the King of Rock & Roll. "Elvis Presley Blues" places the singer next to the myth of John Henry, a character whose own superhuman strength couldn't compete against the machine of a growing industry. In Welch's song which ruminates on an early Presley television appearance the icon is young, graceless and unknowingly powerful, his hip-shaking performance cementing his place in American mythology.
When Welch and Rawlings wearily sigh, "Bless my soul, what's wrong with me," the duo isn't just making a clever allusion to Presley's "All Shook Up;" it's positing the central question of the record: What's wrong with me? It's a sexy, hiccupping tease hidden in the opening line to a simple, twangy rock staple, and in Welch's hands it becomes an existential quandary, one that she spends the album trying to answer.
By the time Welch released 2003's Soul Journey, she had fully embraced the rock-centric sound that she hinted at on Time; electric guitar, Hammond organ and some loose-limbed drumming fleshed out the sound. It's been four years since her last record, and time will tell whether Welch's rock & roll heart will fundamentally alter her approach. But as she proved with Time, she doesn't need anything more than an acoustic guitar to reveal her rock & roll soul. The album to which all of Welch's future releases will be compared, Time is a masterpiece in scope and approach and a monolith of not just Americana music, but American songwriting in general.
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