Soundscape: Gillian Welch Saved Country Music–So What is She Doing with these Indie Bands???

Gillian Welch is my favorite musician. With her albums Revival, Hell Among the Yearlings, and Time (The Revelator), she has created a country style that is honest, authentic, and unobnoxious. She wrote a gospel song, “By the Mark,” that sounds like it’s been around for a hundred years.gillian_hat-bio

Lately, Gillian Welch has been busy with her and David Rawlings’ (her musical partner) own new record label, Acony Records. It’s a great name and she knows how to create a sound. She has signed and produced and album with The Whispertown 2000, whom I saw perform two years ago when they opened for Jenny Lewis. The Whispertown 2000, aside from having a long strange name, is fronted with an obnoxious-sounding singer pushing out clever songs with a whiny voice and impatient guitar playing. They, along with Jenny Lewis, seemed to be trying to add on to the “alternative country” or “indie country” scene that has been growing.

Indie musicians, like Laura Veirs, Neko Case, and Jenny Lewis, like to put out at least one country album for fun. The country always seems to come out contrived. It is trying to be “smarter” then Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette, avoiding subjects like cheating husbands. They also avoid the “Nashville Sound,” a style of country from Nashville in the 1960s featuring background vocals and strings.  All of this is probably their attempt to create country music that doesn’t sound like the stuff on the radio these days.

Jenny Lewis’s country album is the worst of the three I mentioned–her misfitted lyrics and barely-country sounding songs are preachy and the more upbeat ones aren’t catchy enough to create momentum in the album. These attempts to get away from cliche and cheesy have created boring, un-catchy tunes.

I listen to some of The Whispertown 2000’s songs and remember the one time I saw Gillian Welch in concert, where she was opening for Bright Eyes, another indie musician trying to cross over into country, and I’m disappointed. I wonder why Welch is choosing this route. For all she’s done for country music, especially with the epic American-history-oriented song “I dream a highway,” she shouldn’t be opening for young Conor Oberst, who goes on stage drunk most nights and sings like a goat; he should be opening for her.

Perhaps the current country scene, which  idolizes Taylor Swift, singer of pop-with-a-twang, has not given Welch the respect and support she deserves. Alison Krauss has seen incredible success, which is well-deserved, but her friend Gillian seems to be forgotten. The music piracy problem also hasn’t treated her kindly (see “Everything Is Free Now from her Time album).

I think back to Oh Brother Where Art Thou, a film she contributed to greatly, and wonder how she fell out of that golden, sepia Coen Brothers world into the pretentious indie scene. Her latest album, Soul Journey, hasn’t been received as well as her first four amazing albums. Songs like “One Monkey” are confusingly dark, and the album as a whole has lost the quiet, strong melodic pull her other albums feature.

This happens to every artist. She has to grow and change. But I think I speak for all her fans in saying that she will always be home to us–her songs will live on, echoing like an unending Beulah Land anthem. I will always be grateful for this orphan.

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