Everything Old-Time Is New Again

"I want to 'lectrify my soul": Gillian Welch

Everything written about Gillian Welch seems to start from a similar premise: Some folks think a Berklee-trained daughter of Hollywood parents has no right to play old-time country, they say, but she sure sounds good to me. Oddly, Welch's detractors are never identified. It's a convenient construction for the author, who comes off looking open-minded in the midst of this phantom debate.

This, apparently, is the kind of negative critique that's expected when your songs sound so out of time; when you sing about barroom girls while dressed like a Sunday-school teacher; when your first albums are grounded in a musical history that begins with the Skillet Lickers and ends with the Stanley Brothers, as were Welch's 1996 debut, Revival, and its 1998 successor, Hell Among the Yearlings.

Surrounded by accounts of doubters who would question her legitimacy, Welch may actually believe they exist: When, on her latest disc, in the ballad "Everything Is Free," she warbles, "If there's something that you wanna hear, you can sing it yourself," it sounds like she's shooting back. Coupled with lines like "We're gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn't pay," her stance comes off like a declaration of independence worthy of Ian MacKaye.

A year ago, it was easier to imagine Chuck D topping the pop charts with an album of Glenn Miller covers than a discful of bluegrass and old-time songs selling more than two million copies. Then along came O Brother, Where Art Thou? As a key contributor to that soundtrack, a cult favorite, and a free agent who'd lacked a recording contract since her old label, Almo Sounds, folded, Welch looked like major-label fodder. Yet with her partner David Rawlings, she formed her own imprint, Acony Records, to release Time (The Revelator), the best album of her still-young career.

Each of Welch's records has been expertly sung and played, and this one is no exception. If anything, the musicianship is better here: The velvet-voiced Welch has improved on guitar and banjo, while Rawlings, a magical guitarist, hones his harmonies. But where the other albums were monochromatic, Time is womblike in its warmth. That's a credit to Rawlings, who inherits the producer's role from T-Bone Burnett, and maybe also to the ghosts of RCA Studio B in Nashville, where Time was tracked and where the likes of Elvis and the Everly Brothers recorded.

Welch's third disc displays a greatly expanded artistic vision. "Red Clay Halo" (an older composition and concert staple) and "My First Lover" (with Welch's rattling-bones banjo) have her old stark sound, but the latter makes it clear she's no longer singing only about angels and orphans, bootleggers and birds. "My First Lover" finds Welch making out with a surfer dude to the strains of the Steve Miller Band.

Don't, however, think that Welch has traded the antique mood of her earlier records for trivial contemporary fare. The heart of this disc engages the same mythic Americana that certain mumbo-jumbo marketeers have spent years ascribing to Bob Dylan.

Welch braids borrowed lyrics and half-remembered history into epic-yet-intimate yarns: "April the 14th, Part 1" and "Ruination Day, Part 2" set the story of a struggling rock band against the titular date's tragic folklore. (Lincoln was shot, the Titanic sunk, and the windstorms of the Dust Bowl began on this date.) And in "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll" ("I want to 'lectrify my soul," Welch and Rawlings croon) and "Elvis Presley Blues" ("He put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air/And he shook it like a chorus girl"), the pair explores the magical mystery of rock performance. The disc ends with "I Dream a Highway," a 15-minute summation of the album's extended narrative that shimmers like asphalt in August.

In the impossibly pretty lead track, "Revelator," Welch wonders, "Who could know if I'm a traitor?" Tell it to the "naysayers," whoever they are.

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