Bluegrass Roots

Okie from L.A.: Gillian Welch.Photo: Mark Seliger

In one of the pivotal scenes in Ghost World, Enid, a recent high-school graduate who dissects the phoniness of everyone she meets, first hears a cut from an old blues compilation she buys from an obsessive record collector. The plaintive wail of “Devil Got My Woman” burrows into her so deeply that it seems to settle in her stomach. More than by the song itself, she’s captivated by the authenticity of the feeling behind it, the glimpse it offers of a “ghost world” that hovers behind the multiplexes and fake fifties diners that crowd her landscape.

To hear her tell it, Gillian Welch was struck by a similar vision – while she was cleaning a bathtub, no less – the first time she heard the Stanley Brothers. Only, instead of simply staring into a distinctly Appalachian ghost world, Welch up and moved there, finding work making country albums in the tradition of Ralph Stanley. Her third, Time (The Revelator), is her most studiously old-fashioned yet, with spare production and stark images of rural hardship and apocalyptic Americana: One song alone references the Great Depression, Lincoln’s assassination, and the sinking of the Titanic.

Though Welch seems to have blown in from the Dust Bowl – pictures of her invariably look like they were taken by a WPA photographer – she grew up in Los Angeles. But background never counts for much in pop music – remember the young Dylan’s acquired Okie accent? – and she seems to sink into the skin of the hard-luck heroes who wander through her songs. On the gorgeous “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll,” she sings as a country star confronting a changing world so convincingly that it’s easy to forget she was raised on rock radio.

The kind of old-timey country Welch plays has spent a good part of this year atop the charts, thanks to the double-platinum soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s been such an unexpected hit that one industry executive compared it to the surprisingly successful “coffee-table album” from the Buena Vista Social Club, which makes an odd sort of sense. Just as early-sixties hipsters fetishized folk-music visions of an America before
interstate highways, today’s Bobos crave culture from a time before the information highway flattened the cultural landscape into an endless prairie of pop.

In the tradition of the O Brother album, Down From the Mountain, the soundtrack to a recently released documentary about a concert by the O Brother artists, presents a mixture of originators (the late John Hartford, the Fairfield Four), inheritors (Welch, Alison Krauss), and acts with one foot in the present and another in the past (the Cox Family, the Whites). It’s an excellent primer with some striking performances, but an obvious omission is bluegrass veteran Ralph Stanley, who represents to Welch’s generation the kind of iconic purity Woody Guthrie stood for in the sixties. Still, it’s refreshing to hear Welch and Emmylou Harris share the stage with at least a few of the country giants who still walk the earth.

A fiddle prodigy from Illinois, Alison Krauss has been slowly bringing accessible bluegrass to the mainstream for more than a decade, but band mate Dan Tyminski’s role as George Clooney’s singing voice in O Brother won her more exposure with purists. Though any action on Krauss’s New Favorite takes place in an idealized past – in Krauss country, hoe is used only as a verb – songs like “Let Me Touch You for Awhile” and “Crazy Faith” make enough concessions to pop to make a case for bluegrass as more than a museum piece.

The success of O Brother is also nudging some Nashville mainstays back toward their roots, and early-nineties country star Patty Loveless explores the music of her old Kentucky home on Mountain Soul. A real-life coal-miner’s daughter, she has plenty of country cred – her CD sleeve even includes a photo of “Daddy coming home from the mine.” And though she lived the life behind her mournful take on Darrell Scott’s lament “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” Mountain Soul has a lushness that inheritors like Welch seem oddly afraid of. To Loveless, the ghost world is a nice place to visit, but she wouldn’t want to live there.

Gillian Welch
Time (The Revelator)

Various Artists
Down From the Mountain Soundtrack
(Lost Highway)

Alison Krauss & Union Station
New Favorite

Patty Loveless
Mountain Soul

Bluegrass Roots