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Nashville Scene Return of the Stranger

Singer-songwriter resurfaces with potent, thoughtful new collection

By Michael McCall

AUGUST 2, 1999:  For years, Kevin Welch kept hold of a Scottish proverb that goes, "People talk about my drinking/They never talk about my thirst." He carried it in his head for years, thinking that someday he might use it in a song. But as the singer-songwriter explains, he's cursed with the compulsion to make his songwriting reflect his life and his experiences. So he had to wait until the line rang true before he could use it.

But over the last four years, his thirst grew to the point where people began admonishing him about his behavior and telling him he needed to get himself together. Recently the line came back to him, but with a twist: "They keep talking about my drinking/They don't care nothing about my thirst." He used it in a new song, to serve as a metaphor about healing and about getting one's life back on path.

That song, "Anne Lise Please," is among the defining tunes of Welch's new album, Beneath My Wheels, which explores the darker aspects of life while discussing the damage living on the edge can do to oneself and to one's loved ones. Set to textured acoustic music dotted with Delta rhythms, gospel harmonies, and nasty electric guitar, the album examines both the light and dark sides of a man struggling with his desire to experience life to the utmost. While there are plenty of lines about the romantic tug of living on the edge and how easily one can be sucked head over heels into a destructive vortex, in the end Welch writes most tellingly about finding the light that leads a person back onto solid ground.

In this way, Beneath My Wheels continues a few threads that have always run through Welch's work, especially the tension between the romance of the road and the security of home. He also writes provocatively about spiritual issues, but with a mystical eye that leans more toward the writings of Carlos Castenada than the teachings of a neighborhood Baptist preacher.

The longhaired singer never gives easy answers or spouts age-old bromides about the power of faith. His songs suggest that whatever truths he sometimes grasps can vanish suddenly, and that the discovery of oneself, no matter how necessary, can be as burdensome as it is enlightening. Or, as he puts it in "Anne Lise Please," "There is no greater danger than trying to find yourself/Because there is no stranger stranger than a man is to himself."

Welch has examined these issues for years, back on his two critically acclaimed albums for Reprise Records in the early '90s and on his fine Dead Reckoning Records debut, 1995's Life Down Here on Earth. His songs have often spoken of restless souls and self-reliant cusses who endure hard times with a spiritual stoicism. But they also speak of the quiet desperation that pushes such people to keep moving and seekingand like the Tom Cruise character in Eyes Wide Shut, in recent years Welch has found himself entering places he probably shouldn't have gone.

"There were some pretty weird years, some pretty dark years, to tell you the truth," he says, explaining the four-year lag between his last album and this one. "I guess I was just down in there learning a lot of lessonsor relearning a lot of lessons, forgetting stuff and finally remembering stuff that I supposedly have known for a long time."

A native of Oklahoma, Welch speaks with a sweet, slow Southern drawl, and he lets time pass as he thinks over his responses, letting the words slide slowly and deliberately from his tongue. He's ceaselessly polite and just as respectful; during our interview, he asks as many questions as he answers, and he makes sure to credit his collaborators and colleagues.

Unlike many Southerners, though, Welch doesn't hide behind his politeness. But if his words seem unexpectedly revealing on one level, there are some private issues he won't fully divulge. He can be remarkably candid about his periods of dissolution, yet he never talks in specifics, instead addressing his problems and pitfalls in philosophical terms.

"A lot of the songs are really dark," he acknowledges. "In fact, I had to really work to throw some light into the record. I had to really climb out of some pretty dark places. And the only way I was able to do that was to pull myself up. My work is real subject to my lifeprobably too much, you know. I should probably push through more than I do. But my songs depend a whole lot on what I'm going through."

I ask whether what he went through had to do with relationships or something else. "Yeah, it was relationships, and it was something else," he says, each syllable coming out very intentionally and carefully. "It had to do with personal choices, I'd say. Maybe I was trying too hard to do something.... Maybe I just wanted to see how far in I could go and get back out again, which I don't really intend to try again. I can't recommend it to anybody else. But it was sort of deliberate. I really sort of put my ass on the line and left it there for a long time. But I lived, and I'm back. I'm really back. I feel a whole lot happier these days, and I notice it in how I relate with other people. I'm a whole lot happier man."

In writing about his experiences, Welch avoids clichs and the pat sentimentalism that overruns country music these days. His music carries a similar freshness and depth: A fluid yet textured take on American roots music, his songs are never just harshly rocking or just sweetly pretty, but an unusually evocative mixture of both.

"For a while there, while making this album, I felt like I was throwing myself against a brick wall," he concludes. "But now that it's out and people seem to like it, I'm finding that I like it quite a bit myself. I forgot about the energy that's generated when you have a new album out. So I'm having a lot of fun right now. And I'm not planning on letting four years pass again between records."

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