Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A California Country Girl

By Mark Jordan

APRIL 12, 1999:  That singer/songwriter Gillian Welch gets so much grief from music critics for being a Southern California woman playing Appalachian-style country music could be interpreted as a compliment. If she didn’t sound so hauntingly authentic, perhaps her background wouldn’t vex them so. But then Welch herself doesn’t quite see it that way.

“I think it’s stupid,” Welch says from her Nashville home, where she has lived for the past seven years. “I never judge art that way. … The funny thing is, most of the criticism I get along those lines comes from journalists in Los Angeles and New York. … It mostly comes from people who aren’t in a position to dictate what is authentic and what isn’t.”

Such gripes seem to ignore the musical cross-pollination that has affected American music since the advent of recorded music, a process that has made such hybrid forms as rock-and-roll, jazz, R&B, and rap possible. It also flies in the face of California’s rich folk and country tradition, a tradition that includes Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons and the Eagles, and Lone Justice and Los Lobos.

Welch herself seems to be a byproduct of that tradition. Born 30 years ago to parents who wrote music for television, Welch was first turned on to the music of Woody Guthrie and the Carter family while just in second grade.

“That music actually came to me from an elementary school that I went to that was run by a great bunch of hippies,” says Welch. “They taught us all these folk songs, and we sang them every day. So, when I was a little kid I guess I decided I wanted to be a folk singer.”

Welch carried her deep-rooted love of folk and traditional music with her when she headed east to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music. In that city, where blues and ’60s-style of folk flourished, Welch stuck out. But if she felt alienated from the rest of the music scene, she soon found solace in a fellow traveler, her songwriting and performing partner David Rawlings.

“We were both playing country music there, which is pretty unlikely because that’s a pretty small, tight-knit community,” Welch says. “We were both playing Lefty Frizell and Merle Haggard and Bob Wills and stuff. We met and started playing bluegrass just for fun – mostly Stanley Brothers – and we pretty much realized that we both have the same records.”

After college the pair moved to Nashville, where they have been a much-needed reminder to the country-music industry of just what the true roots of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain really are. In 1996, the pair released their first album on Almo Sounds, Revival, a record of sweet, melancholy folk songs that seem to resonate right out of the Smokies. Last year, Welch and Rawlings followed up with Hell Among The Yearlings (like Revival, produced by T-Bone Burnett), a dark, spare album full of death-ballads such as “Caleb Meyer,” “The Devil Had A Hold Of Me,” about young life ending early, the self-explanatory “My Morphine,” and (what country album could do without one?) a lament from the coal hills called “Miner’s Refrain.”

With lyrics inspired by the traditional canon as well as literature and tales she’s heard, both albums feature original material played in a traditional style, a distinction Welch is careful to make.

“Traditional and traditionalist mean two different things. I’m probably somewhat of a traditionalist, but do I think I play traditional music? No. I play traditionally inspired music,” she says. “If you bumped into a musician who says he plays old-time music and asked him what I do, I think he’d tell you I play contemporary music. And hopefully that’s what I do. That’s the way I think of it.”

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