Something Like the Real Thing

In 1947 the Stanley Brothers reworked an old British folk song named “Oxford City” into a mountain murder ballad they called “Little Glass of Wine.” In their bluegrass version, which scored them a hit on the tiny Rich-R-Tone label (they re-recorded it for Columbia two years later), a jealous, impatient, and impetuous fellow named Willie puts poison in the wine he and his girl Molly are drinking after she tells him that she wants to wait another year before marrying him. The song ends with the Stanley Brothers lamenting, “Ain’t this a pity / That old true lovers are bound to die.” Another tune on the recently issued The Complete Columbia Stanley Brothers (Columbia/Legacy), “Pretty Polly,” chronicles yet another rash guy named Willie who digs a grave for his gal–this time named Polly–because her “past reputation’s been trouble” to him. Despite her pleas to spare her life, he ends it.

The high, lonesome, and keening harmony singing of Carter and Ralph Stanley is among the greatest sounds this country has ever produced. Amid plenty of terrific brother teams–the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, and later, the Louvin Brothers–Virginia’s Stanley Brothers stood alone. Their slightly raw, soaring harmonies brought a dusky flavor to the then-blossoming bluegrass movement.

Gillian Welch’s debut Revival (Almo) retrofits those gorgeous Stanley Brothers harmonies. The 28-year-old was raised in Los Angeles by parents who composed music for television programs, most notably The Carol Burnett Show. She later moved to hippie haven Santa Cruz, then to Boston, where she attended Berklee and met her songwriting partner David Rawlings. Upon graduation the pair relocated to Nashville. Ten original tunes make up Revival; some of them vividly tell stories set in rural locales of the past and all of them radiate a contemporary feel while retaining a trace of old-timey spareness. Welch clearly borrows from country music’s past, employing rustic settings and forms she didn’t grow up with, but her appropriations are only tools in the service of her distinctive voice and strong writing ability.

The issue of cultural appropriation is, indeed, a touchy one. Just ask Eric Weisbard and Ann Powers, a pair of New York rock critics who also happen to live together. In recent issues of Spin and Rolling Stone, respectively, they summarily dismiss Welch as a hollow pretender. Weisbard is the more unforgiving of the two, claiming that Welch cares “more about set design than self-expression,” while a less vitriolic Powers accuses Welch of “manufactur[ing] emotion rather than express[ing] it.” Just what these two want from Welch is hard to fathom.

Welch likes to think of her songs as little, and there is a striking simplicity to many of them, which allows a thoughtful yet unassuming universality. The financial details in “One More Dollar” may betray the fact that it’s set in the past, but the theme of displacement resides in the song’s essence, regardless of era. The narrator leaves home to work on a distant farm, planning to return when he has earned enough money. A ruined crop dashes his hopes, and by the time he resorts to panhandling at the tune’s close, it doesn’t require much to understand the song’s relevance. “Orphan Girl,” which was covered by Emmylou Harris on her recent album Wrecking Ball, possesses no temporal contextualization at all. In fact, it merely presents the simple ruminations of an orphan lamenting her solitude. The orphan serves as a metaphor for the emotionally detached, and the song would have been as pertinent 50 years ago as it is today. Perhaps the album’s most striking tune is “Barroom Girls,” an aching portrait of spiritual emptiness evoked through a backwoods night owl. Welch sings, “Last night’s spangles and yesterday’s pearls / Are the bright morning stars of the barroom girls.”

Weisbard and Powers seem to think more urban and/or contemporary subjects would better serve Welch. A barroom girl could just as well wake up with coke and snot running down her nose as whiskey and smoke “in her curls,” but why’s that better or more authentic? While Welch’s gospel tune (“By the Mark”) and her bootlegging song (“Tear My Stillhouse Down”) fall flat, it’s not because she’s working with secondhand material. Rather it’s due to a blend of clumsiness and heavy-handedness. Eschewing the Nashville production machine, Welch flagrantly flouts modern country’s most prevalent convention–stifling radio-ready formulas. The music on the album is attractively lean, serving to carefully accent the lovely singing by Welch and Rawlings, but producer T-Bone Burnett still pulls off some tasteful, modern production flourishes–such as the percussive thwack of Roy Huskey Jr.’s fat walking bass line on the bluesy “Pass You By” and the gently swinging lilt he crafts for “Paper Wings.” At heart, however, Welch and Rawlings are a duo with little need for elaborate instrumentation; they’ll keep it spare when they perform at Schubas on Thursday, June 13. Ignore Weisbard’s delusions about set design. When this duo plays live there are no props, no gimmicks, and no fake twang.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Patrick Salisbury.