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.
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The Independent Culture
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)