Two disclaimers. I loathe what passes for country music. I am a fan, in the fanatical sense, of Gillian Welch, her band, and her collaborations with David Rawlings. Here’s why.
While country music now is passably decent pop music, it resembles true hill country music as much as Christians resemble Christ. With unfortunately few exceptions, it has divorced itself completely from the source, and flies the flag out of some kind of guilty reverence to something long ago abandoned.
On the other hand, this unlikely duo of college music students has managed to inhabit the spirit and traditions of forms dead long before they were born, and have made them live once more. This is neither slavish reproduction nor fawning supplication, but rather revival and nurturing. If you didn’t know better, you would never have known the passing. They have managed, against all odds, to allow what this kind of music has always, and can still, do. They have been ignored by the industry and chastised by purists who believe these forms died and went to heaven, and that evolution is blasphemy.
In its essence, country music was cheap, portable, and organic. Using borrowed and inherited traditions from European ancestors, the tunes were a truly American extension of the spoken word in music. It was both news and entertainment; politics and mythology, emotional and spiritual wondering, as well as an historical record among people for whom literacy was a luxury.
Gradually, musical modernizations bought it to the the point where money could come in and steal the life from it. Gillian Welch has both turned back the clock and fast forwarded it at the same time. While it sounds old-timey, and mines all those classic harmonies and style, it is thoroughly modern. The writing is both historical and timeless. The playing, especially by Rawlings, is as complex as is possible in standard three-chords-and-a-minor. It is genius. His playing, as well as her rock-steady rhythm and workman-like banjo playing always serves the song first, last and foremost.
But to understand how special this all is, one must see them live. Their set-up is a few choice microphones and a sewing case of picks, capos, and extra strings. They really could perform, exactly as they have recorded, in your parlor, and nothing would be lost. The almost trance-like interplay between them is impossible to describe. This semi-conscious state never fails to seduce even those who find themselves at the wrong venue. There are others who toil in these fields, and there is much love and respect among them, but these two up-starts have transformed the idiom, and made it their own.
From the down beat they are gone. These two somewhat shy and friendly folk one might meet in the market suddenly morph into a single being; he all contorted and searching for the notes no one else can find, and she beautifully feral, hunched and brow-furrowed; driving a slow freight train of rhythm.
And then the voices. Voices you might hear on the porch Saturday evenings when barns were made to dance in. Except that this is deadly serious, for there is a song to be served, and they are faithful servants. The audience slowly disappears, and the sounds close in. They are not so much listening to one another as to the music between and around them. They are inhabiting this circle of song, which grows smaller and tighter until even they have ceased to exist. And when the music stops, and the spell is broken, they seem almost embarrassed, as if unsteady for a moment after awakening from the reverie.
This older performance of one of their more popular songs, nicely makes the point. Of the journey from the here and now into the timelessness. But the intimacy of physical witness is lost.
I have seen them perform this bit of magic on four occasions, and am looking forward to my next transformation this September in Los Angeles, on the occasion of her latest new work in eight years. Make it a point to see them if you are anywhere near one of their performances. You will not be disappointed.
by Michael Merline