Hell Among the Yearlings
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In a recent issue of Billboard, the owner of a San Francisco record store claims Gillian Welch's 1996 debut Revival was one of his chain's top-10 sellers for six months because Welch is, above all, "authentic." Spoken like a true businessman who can't separate art from commerce: Welch, a Berklee School of Music graduate born in Los Angeles to parents who wrote for Carol Burnett's TVshow, is no more "authentic" than Madeleine Peyroux is Billie Holiday. She's as phony as they come, down to the Walker Evans-damaged publicity photos. But that's no insult, really--Welch, after all, is an affecting creator of fiction, recounting her borrowed dust-bowl tales through some of the most sparse, elegant, ethereal country-mood music this side of Gram Parsons' GP. And she's a damned sight more interesting than Iris DeMent, who's as real (dull) as they come. Those who'd condemn Welch for faking history seem to imply that an author can do nothing but compose autobiography.
Revival--like its successor, Hell Among the Yearlings--was an affecting, haunting work crafted out of dobro, banjo, and heartbreak; "Paper Wings" alone should have made her a household name, if only because her Patsy Cline rip seemed far more heartfelt--more authentic, yes--than LeAnn Rimes' "Blue." Welch didn't merely regurgitate history books; she imbued the past with flesh and blood. She captures desolation and desperation like a weary veteran who's also more than capable of penning a haunting string-band melody that sneaks up on a rock-and-roll beat; "Honey Now" off Hell Among the Yearlings reveals a rock-and-roll fan beneath all the fetishism. And if she's at all affected--on Hell Among the Yearlings, she pronounces "devil" as "daaay-vil," and her arid voice is sometimes so nasal that she makes Willie Nelson sound like a baritone--it only makes her seem a more reliable narrator. She inhabits a role so completely, the fiction separating character and audience disappears: You believe her when she sings "I'm Not Afraid to Die," and she is the "Whiskey Girl," killing time with her nowhere man.
Hell Among the Yearlings proves she's no dilettante fluke; it rates up there with The Band and Randy Newman's 12 Songs where authenticity's concerned, proving there's no such thing as dead music, only dead musicians. Hers is a modern world merely recast in black-and-white: In "My Morphine," she wonders when her heroin high turned into such a devastating low ("Morphine / when'd you get so mean?" she sings, her voice languid and detached. "You never used to do me like you do"); and "Caleb Meyer" kicks off the album in the middle of a rape. It may not be "authentic," but it's real enough.