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Nashville Scene From the Hills

Duo makes modern mountain music

By Michael McCall

JULY 27, 1998:  Few instruments evoke the Appalachian mountains as well as the banjo does. When played in the old-time clawhammer style, the banjo's plucked strings convey an ancient austerity that cuts the air like the cry of a hawk. No other instrument is so capable of stripping away the pretense of the modern world.

In the hands of singer and songwriter Gillian Welch, the banjo creates a particularly haunting atmosphere. With Welch's words drawing images of violence, addiction, and other evil human conditions, the grim indifference of the banjo heightens the severity of her themes like the shadow of a predator passing over its prey.

The banjo is among the reasons why Welch's new Hell Among the Yearlings sounds even more ascetic than her critically acclaimed 1996 debut, Revival. But it's not the only reason: Darker in tone, and even more starkly arranged than its predecessor, the new album consists almost entirely of acoustic duets between Welch and her partner, David Rawlings. The two musicians are augmented only on one song, "Whiskey Girl," which finds producer T Bone Burnett adding minimal touches of piano and Hammond B-3 organ. The rest of the time, Welch's banjo or acoustic guitar alone engages in an intimate dance with Rawlings, whose accompaniment is as close, as natural, and as intuitive as the body of one lover pressing against another.

Welch grants that her recent study of the banjo has greatly influenced her songwriting style over the last two years. But another reason why the new album sounds so stark is the recent death of Roy Huskey Jr., who played bass on Revival. He had been part of the original plans for recording Hell Among the Yearlings. "His passing was such a big loss to Nashville, to the whole music community at large," Welch says. "We had been thinking that David, myself, Roy, and T Bone would be the band for the album."

Welch says that Huskey's intuitive playing and understanding of old-time music made him irreplaceable--at least on short notice. So she and Rawlings decided to make a duet album instead. "It just seemed to suit the material," she explains. "The songs are arguably even more traditional than on the last record. They're more in the mountain ballad tradition--a lot of them don't have choruses. I wouldn't know how to put a band on them."

The one exception is "Honey Now," on which Rawlings plays electric slide guitar, creating a raw sound reminiscent of recent recordings by Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough. (The sound will be familiar to Nashville fans who've caught Rawlings and Welch performing in their side project, The Esquires, over the last year at Radio Cafe.)

The other 10 songs, all written by Welch and Rawlings, convey the two musicians' stubborn zeal for old-time mountain music. The new album digs deeper than ever into this sound: Though Welch has often cited the Stanley Brothers and the Carter Family as major influences, Hell Among the Yearlings recalls the even starker recordings of such early string-band pioneers as Dock Boggs and Buell Kazee. And like the music of those two men, Welch's and Rawling's songs are as evocative and as brutal as the most chilling blast of heavy metal or punk.

A few of the songs ("My Morphine," "Whiskey Girl") contain quietly beautiful melodies. But the subject matter is relentlessly heavy and cheerless, except for "Honey Now" and the closing folk tune, "Winter's Come & Gone," which speaks of the renewal of spring. "We were going to end with 'Whiskey Girl,' " Welch says. "But then we thought maybe it was too heavy. With that kind of closer, no one would ever put the album on again. Compared to the others, ['Winter's Come & Gone'] is seemingly optimistic. We needed to have that big palate cleanser."

Welch did receive a smattering of negative criticism for Revival. The rap was that a child of Los Angeles artists shouldn't try to recreate the music of a region and an era that aren't her own. She realizes that these same critics will find even more to harp about on Hell Among the Yearlings. But she doesn't care.

"I just really love traditional music," Welch says, speaking by telephone from Rhode Island, where Rawlings' parents live. "I love a song like 'Pretty Polly,' where there's no chorus at all. You just get the story of this guy who killed his girlfriend. People think I'm strange, but there's something beautiful about that narrative form. It's real compelling to me."

Even though she's drawing on older forms, Welch thinks of her music as contemporary. As far as she's concerned, she's simply working within a timeless artistic framework that few others are pursuing these days. "These are established forms of music, and David and I have a real interest in what their place is in the modern world," she says. "That's the reason we haven't given up on this duo thing yet. I want to see what can happen with it today. There's not many people playing it, but that doesn't mean what we're doing is a museum piece or an educational venture. I do it because it's what I do and what seems to be best for my music."

So far, the critics have been in the minority. The harshest and most high-profile judgments have come from big-city journalists such as Ann Powers, a well-regarded writer for The New York Times and Spin. As Welch points out, these detractors have no more of a connection to the Appalachian region than she does.

The singer takes great pride in the fact that whenever she performs at festivals in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, or North Carolina, she receives heaps of praise and encouragement from people who have performed or lived with old-time mountain music all their lives. Such praise is well-deserved too--no new artist of the '90s calls upon the ghosts of Appalachia as potently or as artfully as Welch and Rawlings do.

"To me, the lack of flesh on what we do keeps us from giving away what it really is," Welch says. "If we were to add a mandolin and a fiddle player, people would hear it and say it's new-traditional bluegrass. If we played it with Dave on electric guitar and me on bass, then added a drummer, people would say it was this acoustic-fringe alternative stuff. But we're not showing our cards, so people don't know what it is--or maybe they don't care. You either like it or you don't, I figure. But in my mind, it's very current and contemporary music. It may look like an archaic situation to some, but I'm seeing something else in it."

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