Pop: Not so simple country folk

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are the country duo from hell. They write grim songs about mining and rape, and you can't line-dance to them.

For a couple of years now, Gillian Welch has been on a quest. Her personal grail? To write the dumbest, most ignorant chorus possible. "I mean that in a good way," she adds, mysteriously.

She finally called off her quest when she came up with the chorus to "Miner's Refrain", so dumb they named the song after it: "I'm down in a hole, I'm down in a hole, I'm down in a deep, dark hole", sung in due deep, dark tones. "It tickled me that it was so plain, almost stupidly simple," explains Gillian (the "G" is hard). "So then we set about writing the rest. It started out as a fairly legitimate mining song, until it was pointed out to me that I knew very little about mining."

Welch's songwriting and performing partner, David Rawlings, didn't know much more about mining than she did, except for what he had learnt when travelling next to a gung-ho executive from Addington Resources, the strip-mining company. "We've got a machine that can slice the top right off a mountain," she had boasted, explaining how the tyres for this behemoth cost about a million dollars each. "Unbelievable stuff!" marvels Rawlings. "They're all driven by camera now, robotics - the guys don't even have to get in the machines."

How on earth do you write a mining song when all the miners are machines? This is the type of problem that faces the contemporary neo-traditionalist country songwriter, a profession as much a prey to the grim vicissitudes of industrial style as those once employed in that industry, before the robots were brought in. Accordingly, the song turned into something even deeper and darker, Welch and Rawlings using the refrain to lament the deep, dark hole in every troubled man's soul. It's a neat solution, perfectly in accord with the songwriting tradition they espouse.

Rooted in the bluegrass sound of older country acts such as the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers, the music that Welch and Rawlings make has a timeless, evocative quality that is hard to pin down.

Certainly, you're never far from the thematic staples of sex, death, and God. The duo's 1996 debut, Revival, and last year's Hell Among the Yearlings are full of songs about bar girls and miners, drifters, still- houses and murders, and how sometimes the devil gets inside of you and makes you do the darnedest things.

To the lay listener, this may sound traditional, though Welch is keen to stress the songs' contemporary nature. "There's a very strong appeal in the challenge of writing in an established, almost stereotypical form," she admits. "Can I write one and not have it be boring? Can I bring something new to it?" She can: "Caleb Meyer" is a murder ballad that is steeped in antique harmonies and pungent banjo tunings but, unlike most murder ballads, it's not the woman who dies here but the eponymous rapist, stabbed with a broken bottle by his intended victim. Welch denies any underlying agenda to this post-modern twist: "I didn't have any higher motive or anything." "But when that started to happen," adds the laconic Rawlings, "we both chuckled and went, `Oh, that's fine'."

Welch's penchant for old-time music came as something of a surprise to her adoptive parents, a pair of showbiz songwriters who worked on The Carol Burnette Show. "I could always hear them in the back room, working," she recalls. "The kind of music they do is pretty different from what I do - musically, it's as if they found me in a basket on the doorstep. They don't really understand where my love of bluegrass and old-time music came from. But they should, because they're the ones who enrolled me in a progressive, liberal school started by some old hippies. Every day we had music class, and they taught us Carter Family and Woody Guthrie tunes."

Although she learnt to play many of those old songs back at school, it was only when Welch went to college and shared a house with a country- music DJ that she heard the original artists performing them. "First off, it was their songs that influenced me, because that's how I learnt them. Later on, when I eventually heard the records, it became their sound. The Stanley Brothers were a huge influence on the sound I wanted to make, especially Ralph Stanley's singing - that's about as good as it gets for me."

Welch and Rawlings met at Berklee College of Music in Boston, when both of them auditioned for a country band. Discovering a shared love of old- time music, they moved to Nashville in 1992, like so many aspiring musicians before them.

The country music capital can be a cruel town. "If you don't have your stuff really together," says Welch, "people hear you and make up their minds quickly. And once you've been there for a few years, then you're that person who's been around for five years, and why hasn't anyone signed you yet? It gets ugly real fast."

There are compensations, though. There's no shortage of places to play, and if you're as obviously talented as Welch and Rawlings, there's every chance that Emmylou Harris will drop by your gig to contribute harmonies (Emmylou covered their "Orphan Girl" on her acclaimed Wrecking Ball album). And despite the rampant commercialisation of the Dollywoods and Twitty Citys, there are still enough old-timers around to furnish a few pleasant surprises - such as when, at one of their first paying gigs, the duo were complimented on their version of the classic "Long Black Veil" by an older woman who turned out to be the song's co-writer, Maryjohn Wilkins.

"That's the stuff that happens that makes you go `Wow, I'm so glad I'm here'," says Rawlings. "That, and going to breakfast with Chet!"

For the most part, though, the duo operate at some remove from the mainstream country industry. "It's this totally other business that has nothing to do with what we do," reckons Welch. They may have been taken on by a Nashville publishing house, but it's significant that they ended up signing with a Los Angeles-based label rather than a local arm of Arista, BMG or MCA. Not that they have any axe to grind. "We meet people, especially over here," observes Rawlings, "who say `Isn't Nashville terrible? How do you bear it?' But the truth is, we don't ever see that stuff - it's not as if Travis Tritt turns up at your house and says, `Hi! I sell more records than you!' But it's OK - some people love it. If everybody liked apples, there wouldn't be enough to go round."

And there's certainly enough to go round. But is there a place for poor folks' music in such bountiful times? Rawlings thinks so: "People are more likely to listen to poor folks' music in good times, just as they were more likely to play Monopoly in 1935 when there was no real money around."

He offers an illustration. "I was fixing our car at this dirt-driveway service station in Columbus, Ohio," he recalls. "The place was just filthy - if you'd removed the rented TV and VCR and taken pictures of the house, you couldn't have distinguished it from dustbowl shacks of the Thirties. But they had a radio on the wall, playing Top 40 Country, and it sounded shiny and great, terrific. They didn't need our record - their lives were depressing enough already."

Welch and Rawlings tour London, Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester, beginning on Feb 3 at Sheffield Pheasant (0114-251 3014)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?