As real and as raw as it gets

Mark Cooper samples Gillian Welch's alternative bluegrass
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The Independent Online
She may sing like a blue Kentucky girl but Gillian Welch grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of the music team who then wrote for the Carol Burnett show. Like so many neo-traditionalists, Welch wasn't born a bluegrass-based artist, she has become one. That process of "becoming" recently culminated in her appropriately titled and critically lauded debut album, Revival, and a trio of shows opening for Mark Knopfler at the Royal Albert Hall with her partner David Rawlings.

It began one Sunday morning in 1986 when Gillian was attending the University of California at Santa Cruz. She'd grown up on Rodgers and Hart, James Taylor and The Beatles and had recently converted to REM but she was down on her knees when she finally saw the light.

"We'd just finished breakfast," recalls Welch with her characteristic eye for detail. "I was scrubbing the bathroom floor and a friend put on a Stanley Brothers album. It was like a light bulb going off in my head. I fell in love with what I was hearing - the harmonies, the stories, the very nature of the songs... I thought I'd found something I could do."

Welch found out more about her newfound love by regularly attending bluegrass sessions at Santa Cruz's Sluggo's Pizza. She later played in a local Bay Area band and then moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music. Welch picked up on local heroes like the Pixies and Throwing Muses but continued to play what she calls "this backwards mountain music" in coffee houses. Eventually she ran into Rawlings, who quickly became her partner, co-writing songs, adding high, lonesome harmonies and decorating their simple folk and country melodies with his fluent, angular guitar lines.

Welch was signed to the Nashville-based publishers, Almo Irving Music, and was soon whisked to LA for a personal audition with Jerry Moss who had recently started a new label, Almo Sounds, with his old A&M partner, Herb Albert. She realised the audition was probably going well when Moss started to sing along.

Moss is an astute record man and although Welch's tight-lipped blend of bluegrass, folk and old-time honky tonk is utterly at odds with the big drums and salesmanship of current country radio, her debut is perfectly timed to ride the interest in all things bluegrass sparked by Alison Krauss's multi-platinum Now That I've Found You collection. Yet where Krauss's cooing, Dolly-influenced sound suggests a soothing pastoral vision of olde America, Welch draws on an altogether bleaker strand of bluegrass that blends forbearance with an almost Calvinistic sense of doom. The album is set in an Appalachian-style "world of trouble", a world of Ginny mules, copper kettles and still-houses where peace or happiness lie permanently out of reach.

"We don't have any party songs to save our asses," admits Welch. "Most of the characters die. But as someone said, our songs are dark but not bleak. You get a sense that my characters are going to keep going. They never feel that they're beaten, and that's an essential part of bluegrass."

As for pat accusations of "depression chic" or suggestions that Welch's songs, dresses and even hairstyle are merely retro, Welch is quite certain of her ground. "If you get beneath the particulars of the fact that these characters are doing things like running stills in Tennessee, then all the human stuff beneath is as real and as raw as it gets. The vocabulary stays within the tradition but this is art; we're not throwbacks and we're not just being literal. You don't have to believe in heaven or be a farmer to be moved by this sound."