Gillian Welch, the 33-year-old alt-country star, sometimes goes into an osteoporotic-looking trance over her guitar when she plays. She bends her knees and sinks down a little, bends her head down toward the guitar, puts her right ear down near it, as if it were a shy student from whom she is trying to coax the answer to whatever question it is that she seems so puzzled by. Her partner, David Rawlings, just 30, whom she met when they were studying music at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, also treats his guitar, an arch-top (no big round hole; more like a violin’s top), like a pupil—not a shy one but a thick-headed one. Rawlings grimaces at his guitar, beats some quick and detailed sense into it with his vigorous flat-picking or teases it out of its sullenness with ironic riffs. Sometimes he looks at it with surprise, as if to say, “Did I teach you that?”
These slender, talented, and appealing young people are partners in life, evidently—as well as in music. When they perform, they project matching, entangled intensities, and their vocal harmonies and instrumentation are scarily precise. Matt Dellinger, a young music writer, has said that at Merlefest, in Wilkesboro, N.C., they were the only musicians there who during breaks went back to their trailer to work on correcting their mistakes. They live together and write all their music together, and they say that when they are all done with a song, they don’t know which of them wrote what. It has taken them two or three years to complete each of the three albums they’ve recorded— Revival, Hell Among the Yearlings, and, just now released, Time (The Revelator). In a word, like all worthwhile musicians, they are perfectionists. When I first met them, in Nashville in early June, they were still wrestling with the newest CD in the fabled RCA Studio B, where Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison and many others recorded—the studio is an offsite part of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Welch and Rawlings were using vintage mikes and other period equipment and occasionally plinked away recreationally at the Steinway on which Floyd Cramer invented country piano-playing of a delayed-major-chord kind that you would absolutely recognize if you could hear it. And you can.
Revival established Welch and Rawlings as composers and performers of guitar-backed, tuneful, neo-old-timey country, folk, and gospel songs. It contains most of their “hits”—the Guthrie-like out-of-luck-migrant-worker song “One More Dollar,” the gospel tune “By the Mark,” and the stunningly lovely ” Barroom Girls,” with lyrics that flirt and may even get into bed with real poetry. Hell Among the Yearlings took them more deeply and darkly into their reconstructed Appalachia. (“It did well in Europe,” someone told me.) It includes a modal—neither major-key nor minor-key—song about a rapist named Caleb Meyers whom the singer/victim kills by drawing a broken bottleneck across his throat. Welch and Rawlings, from Los Angeles and Rhode Island, respectively, came under some criticism for appropriating an “authentic” kind of music, which, it was said, they had no right to emulate or imitate.
But the criticism hasn’t seemed to stick. First of all, it proceeds from a touching but impossibly Edenic desire for purity in music that has automatically fallen at least a little way out of the grace of purity by having entered the world of commerce. (The admirable but failed movie Songcatcher, about musicology, old Appalachian ballads, and profit, addresses this phenomenon directly.) Second, it presumes an Archimedean still point of culture from which one may judge purity and authenticity. Why is Gillian Welch frailing away at a banjo any phonier than the white Southerners who adopted this essentially African instrument for their own renditions of songs that also weren’t “really theirs”—centuries-old English and Scottish ballads? Third, if you listen closely to Welch and Rawlings, you will hear lyrics and musical touches that are clearly meant to depart, however subtly, from the tradition in which their music is based. They’re not trying to fool anyone.
In any case, Time (The Revelator) presents a dramatic departure from the dark-hollerism of Welch and Rawlings’ first two albums. One might have thought that for the sake of sales and popularity they would take their growing sophistication and reputation and revive the idea of Revival. But it appears that they don’t want to or can’t keep plowing the same musical field, no matter how productive it might be. If the term “concept album” weren’t somehow so appalling, one might want to use it to describe this new release. Still employing the same close harmonies and continuing to develop into continuingly folk-flavored but decisively less Appalachian-sounding melodies, the dissonances and modulations that have characterized their songwriting from the start and that have kept it from being the musical equivalent of reproduction furniture (another appalling phrase), Revelator—as the album will almost certainly come to be called—veers away into really new territory.
So, what’s the concept? The losses inevitably incurred by the passage of time—personal losses, musical losses, cultural losses, losses of innocence, losses of heroes, losses of dreams. Taken together, the songs here seem to want to redeem these losses in two ways: by weaving the tattered remains of the past into new whole cloth—the cloth of art—and by finding the hidden meaning in them that the passage of time reveals. The dictionary says that in the theological sense, “revelator,” a word first used at the beginning of the 19th century, means someone who knows and can articulate the will of God—St. John is often called “John the Revelator” in Baptist hymns and sermons.
In this album, it’s time that reveals its own meanings and purposes. Using compositions that range from a ditty to a slow romantic waltz to a slurry blues moan to a hypnotic 15-minute-plus Philip Glassy imagistic tour de force, the album assembles an alt-country “Wasteland,” with quotes from and references to and nods toward scores of events and songs and people in the nation’s and the singers’ lives. Casey Jones, Elvis Presley, John Henry, Gram Parsons, Abraham Lincoln—all of whom, mythical or real, played a role in some greater or smaller musical or political or social transition, at the cost of their own lives—occur in the lyrics here and often recur in later cuts. Lincoln’s assassination and Elvis Presley’s death and the sinking of the Titanic keep turning up like bad pennies. After listening to this CD again and again, I hope April 14, which Welch and Rawlings call “ruination day,” is not your birthday. I believe I detected lyrics quotes from Gene Autry (“Back in the Saddle Again”), Presley (“All Shook Up”), the Delmore Brothers ("Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar”), folk music ("Five Hundred Miles,” “John Henry”), gospel music ("Ezekiel Saw De Wheel”), Bill Justis ("Raunchy”), James Brown ("Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag”), etc. Woven in among these public references are what must be allusions to the singers’ own lives—“My First Lover,” the yearning to be in a rock ’n’ roll band, the inroads that Napster and its cousins have made on the property rights of musicians ("Everything Is Free”), and so forth. The last, 15-minute song, “I Dream a Highway,” is a compendium of yearnings, and the principal refrain, “I dream a highway back to you, love,” appears to have less to do with a road and a sweetheart than time’s one-way interstate and the impossible wish to return a former, ideal world.
All along, much of Welch and Rawlings’ music may have been more personal than one might at first suspect. Welch’s most famous song, “Orphan Girl,” from Revival, rerecorded by Emmylou Harris and others, may be less an old-time lonesome religious lyric than a gloss on the fact that Welch was adopted as an infant. Its lines include “I have had friendships, pure and golden/ But ties of kinship, I have not known them.”
Time (The Revelator) makes it clear that like all real musical artists these two have adopted the work of their predecessors, adapted it to their own uses, and made it into new patterns with passion, skill, and an occasional sly wink about what they’re up to. If they have any weakness, it’s their tendency to sing very slowly, as if pushing their music through molasses—their own compositions are often dreamily protracted, and they sometimes perform such classics as “Copper Kettle” and “Long Black Veil” in what seems like half-time, as if to hunt out every nuance hidden in the melody’s nooks and crannies and the lyrics’ every syllable. There aren’t all that many nuances in these simple tunes, but even when things drag a little with Welch and Rawlings, they never stop being virtuosos.
Time (The Revelator) is a challenging, complex album, but it’s clear that Welch and Rawlings’ fans and new converts are getting it. And buying it—it has spent many weeks in Amazon’s Top 20, and its sales will probably surpass by far the figures for the first two albums. It’s an authentic success.