There are two countries in country music these days. One is populated by the likes of Toby Keith, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Alan Jackson. It churns out multiplatinum, radio-friendly albums with butt-kicking jingoistic hits like "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." It sports tight-fitting Wrangler jeans, snakeskin boots, unscuffed Stetson lids and well-manicured goatees. It says things like "Cowboy up!" and "These colors don't run." It drives monster trucks over piles of burning Dixie Chicks CDs.
The other country is populated by the descendants of The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. It churns out classic, revelatory and spooky songs like "No Depression," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "The Man in Black," "I Will Always Love You" and "Pancho and Lefty." It sports black, anomalous chest protrusions, male braids and bad beards. It says things like "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" and "dee-o-lady-oh." It drives railroad spikes through convention. It's from the country but, nowadays at least, often winds up on the stereos of urbanites, those who romanticize some long-gone idea of the country and/or people who really like O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Sure, these are sweeping generalizations, but country/bluegrass/folk chanteuse Gillian Welch definitely falls somewhere near the latter category, except for the fact that she born in New York City and then grew up in Los Angeles with parents who wrote music for The Carol Burnett Show. And to top it all off, she was discovered (after she attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston) while playing a gig in Nashville by good ol' T Bone Burnett, who became her producer and put her on his Grammy Award-winning soundtrack to O Brother. It doesn't get any more meta-country than that.
With the release of her first album, Revival, in 1996, Welch joined the ranks of a booming alternative country (alt-country) movement that blended indie rock with the outlaw strains of old-time country. Bands like Uncle Tupelo, Slint, Palace (aka Will Oldham), Tarnation and The Geraldine Fibbers were reinventing country as a mostly earnest reaction against irony and the techno-supremacy of the '90s.
Welch was a natural fit for the new mutation. She loved The Stanley Brothers and The Carter Family and had a pearl-drop voice that could effortlessly carry that "high, lonesome sound." And, despite her urban upbringing, she wasn't bad at writing original lyrics about timeless old hard-luck subjects like mining, whiskey, killing your lover, being dirt broke, the devil, orphans, and, of course, death. In "Tear My Stillhouse Down" from Revival, she tackles many of these subjects at once:
Put no stone at my head
No flowers on my tomb
No gold plated sign
In a marble pillared room
The one thing I want
When they lay me in the ground
When I die tear my stillhouse down.
Revival was followed by Hell Among the Yearlings in 1998 and (after she gained significant recognition from her O Brother tracks "I'll Fly Away" and "Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby") by Time (The Revelator) in 2001.
Welch and her longtime musical partner David Rawlings are now touring behind their most recent release, Soul Journey (2003). You can catch them at 32 Bleu on Friday night.
-- Noel Black
capsule Gillian Welch
32 Bleu, 32 S. Tejon St.
Friday, Sept. 3 at 8:30 p.m.
$17-$20; Call 955-5664 or visit www.32bleu.com