Alterna-country pioneer Kevin Welch's music tells listeners all they need to know about the fledgling genre

Jul 28, 1999 at 4:00 am

By now we're all familiar with the fumbling critics do when trying to come up with a term for any kind of music that is, in the immortal words of Donny and Marie, a little bit country, a little bit rock & roll. There's alt-country, of course, as well as No Depression, Americana, roots rock and y'alternative. This could have all been cleared up a few years back, when singer/songwriter Kevin Welch called his second album Western Beat.

The term, which conjures an image of cowboys and campfires — real country music, as opposed to Nashville tripe — but also "beat" as in Beat Generation, is a perfect match for the literate, restless sound of Welch's four albums but could just as easily be used to describe everything from Joe Ely to Son Volt to Whiskeytown.

Here's Welch describing how the term came about in the first place: "I was on a flight to Switzerland, and my traveling companion was Bob Saporiti, who's now the general manager for Warner Bros. in Nashville (Welch's former label). I was going to do the Montreaux Jazz Festival, and I got talking to Bob about an idea that all of us had had around here for a long time. There needs to be some way to kind of give everybody one roof to live under, just some kind of way to tie us all together — make it so we don't always have to hear "So what is it you do?' And Bob said, "What about Western Beat?' I said, "Well, that'd be OK,' and didn't think much more of it.

"As it turned out, we were playing Montreaux on July 4, so we were like "America Day' or something — it was me, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Jim Lauderdale. And the promoter came to us that day and said, "Look, guys, I don't want to introduce you as country music, because when the audience here thinks of country, they think of mainstream Nashville stuff, and that's not what you guys do. What else can we call it?' So we sat around this sidewalk cafe for a couple of hours, and I told 'em about Saporiti's idea. We all kind of shook hands on it, and the guy came back and we told him, "Well, as a matter of fact, back in the United States, people call us Western Beat.' And that's where that came from."

Welch says he's not that upset that the idea hasn't exactly caught on but thinks it was a worthwhile try: "I don't really care about it that much, but I even ended up calling a record of mine that because I figured people would be asking me, "What's Western Beat?' and I would be able to tell 'em."

Maybe it's better if Welch's music is just allowed to speak for itself, which it has on four dazzling albums, starting with his self-titled debut in 1990 and 1992's aforementioned Western Beat. Eventually Welch parted ways with Warner Bros. Records and formed his own label, Dead Reckoning, with like-minded artists Kieran Kane, Mike Henderson, Tammy Rogers and Harry Stinson. Welch's first album for the label was 1995's acclaimed Life Down Here on Earth. His most recent effort is the just-released Beneath My Wheels.

So what's he been up to for the last four years? "Oh, traveling a lot, playing, just learning about stuff," he says noncommittally. Apparently he's been going back and forth quite a bit to Scandinavia, including a couple of trips to a festival called Song Island, held at an offshore location in the Baltic Sea. "It involves mostly Scandinavian writers and musicians, but then they'll bring in a couple of Americans, maybe an Irish lad or two, and it turns into an international weeklong wine-drinkin' songwritin', show-playin' party," Welch says. "It's really fun." So much fun, in fact, that Welch wound up recording several tracks from Beneath My Wheels at a studio in Copenhagen. "That was just out of curiosity, really," he says. "I was in kind of a production frame of mind at the time, working on the record whenever I would come home, and I decided I wanted to see how those guys did their work over there, kind of check out the gear they use, the ways they use it, how is it different from what we do here in the States."

The results can be heard on the swamp-rocking "Hill Country Girl," the powerful "Full Moon Over Christiania" and "Faith Comes Later," a song inspired by René Descartes. The songs were recorded not only with a Danish crew but with a group of Danish musicians as well. Welch says it may come as a surprise to some, but Western Beat-style music is catching on more than you might expect in that part of the world.

"In a lot of ways, it's a lot like it is here — almost a cult thing," he says. "I think people are really surprised, though, when we go over there, that anybody knows us, and they understand the music and like the music, which they sincerely do. A lot of people over there are students of this music, and people walk up to me and they know who the second engineer on the first record was. They're students of it. But in terms of numbers, they're just like we are here. Kids generally listen to bad radio and pop stuff. With the exception of Garth (Brooks), who has managed to create quite a stir all over Europe, most of the other mainstream-country artists are not accepted there. The scene basically consists of these sort of country/western clubs all over Europe, where folks will dress up and — you know, I don't wanna put 'em down, but if I talk about it very long I will start to. It's almost like the equivalent of motorcycle clubs or a bowling league — it's just something for them to do. But those aren't the people that we're playing to or trying to communicate with. That's like, I heard line dancing is starting to catch on in Spain. Nothing against line dancing, but that really kind of frightens me."

Back home, Welch and his labelmates are starting to make an impact, which is saying something, considering the extent to which Nashville, with its country-music industry, is a company town. Welch says his major-label experience was nowhere near as dire as those reported by others, but he wouldn't trade it for his current situation. "(Warner Bros.) knew me pretty well when I signed over there, so they knew what they were getting into. They didn't have any real expectations that I was going to start bending over backwards to try to record something that I thought some radio programmers would like. And they didn't pressure me too much. But having said that, I'll also say that the experience I've had on an indie, and particularly since it's Dead Reckoning, has been really much superior. And I would not have at the time, nor would I now, dream of signing a major-label deal in Nashville, or probably anywhere. The company's healthy, and it's just a blast. We've got a whole bunch of new projects we're working on right now, and the future is looking bright.

"Part of the reason we're able to make it work is that we had no desire to have this stuff played on mainstream-country radio, nor were we under the illusion that that was gonna happen. Those (radio) guys will come right out and tell you that they won't play indie labels. A case in point was a few years ago when Alison Krauss had a huge hit with a Keith Whitley song. It was a single, and it wasn't on her usual label, Rounder (an independent). It was part of a tribute album that was on a major label. As a result of that — and I would love it if you would print this; I think human beings ought to know this story — she was named the Country Music Association Vocalist of the Year. Her very next record, her next single, was on Rounder, and they wouldn't even play it. And this is the Female Vocalist of the Year. So when we went into Dead Reckoning, we knew that's the sort of thing we were up against."

In addition to writing for his own albums, Welch has had his songs recorded by Trisha Yearwood, Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller and Wynonna. Welch is a little bit off the beaten path of the Nashville tunesmiths-for-hire, though he says he'd like to be a little more accessible on that front in the future. "I pretty much wait for ideas to hit me, and then writing a song takes as long as it takes," he says. "I'll keep doing it that way, but I need to be spending more time with a pen in my hand and a lump in my throat, just staring at a blank piece of paper. I can't say I'm not doing that without saying that I ought to be."

When it happens that someone picks up on one of his hard-won tunes, it sometimes seems a marriage made to order. "The last song of mine Waylon cut was a song called "Untitled Waltz," Welch says. "The rest of that title, which he didn't put on the record, was "For the Poet William Stafford.' There's a story about William Stafford, that he had a habit of completing a poem every single day, start to finish, seven days a week. And somebody said, "What do you do if it's the end of the day and you're really tired and the poem's just not very good?' He said, "Well, I just lower my standards.' And I loved that story, and wanted to put it in a song somehow. It took me several years, and when I did, it was one of those rare times when I said, you know, nobody's going to cut this besides me and maybe Waylon Jennings. And that's exactly what happened."

Kevin Welch performs on Friday, July 30, at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room. Also on the bill are the Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, featuring Mark Olson and Victoria Williams.