Who has a right to sing country, to sing the blues? Even after decades of the commercialization of rural Southern traditions, the questions persist. We look to music of the country -- folk-blues, old-time, all the trad/arr eternities -- to be more than entertainment; we want reality, we want the truth. We expect the writers to write what they known and secretly wish the singers to suffer the stories they tell.
Such desires may be fallacious, but they're not easily dismissed. LA-born-and-raised singer/songwriter Gillian Welch has never escaped them. With longtime companion David Rawlings, Welch makes music that enriches and expands old-time genres most city folk barely grasp. Her latest album, Time (The Revelator), takes those banjo-plucked, fluidly harmonized, defiantly acoustic forms as far as anyone has dared.
The album, however, has been far from universally acclaimed. New Times critic David Hill balks at its "confessional singer/songwriter mode," calling it "obscure," "slow-going" and "verging on tedious," as if Welch's previous two albums were neither deeply autobiographical nor languorous, at least by modern country and rock standards. Greil Marcus, who can barely go a month in Salon.com without dissing Lucinda Williams or Welch, finds her new work studied and pat. By modern country and rock standards, pathetically low though they may be, Time (The Revelator) certainly is obscure and slow, and many may find the near 15-minute album-closer, "I Dream a Highway," tiresome and ponderous. Those listeners probably don't spend much time listening to Dylan's "Desolation Row" or Cohen's "Master Song," or Young's "For the Turnstiles."
Welch's Time (The Revelator) belongs in a small class of recorded music that includes Tragic Songs of Life, Highway 61 Revisited, Tonight's the Night, Trace and Nebraska. Yes, it really is that good. And like those albums, Time (The Revelator) was cut on the spot; like them, it vibrates with a first-hand immediacy. There's nothing more between the listener and the music than an old tube microphone and rolling tape. The first notes of the first song, the most supernaturally melodic lines Rawlings has ever played, were barely caught in the freshly lit heat of recording. "'Revelator' is the first thing we cut for the record," Welch explains. "It wasn't even a take. It was a mike test. We're lucky our engineer, Matt Andrews, is scrappy and on the ball; he rolled tape. That was a theme throughout the record. 'Ruination Day' was a mike test; 'Elvis Presley Blues' was a first take. We'd just finished writing it that night."
Time (The Revelator), then, is an initiation. Just as little in Welch's remarkable first two albums hinted at these antic visions, these arduous reveries, little in the gadgety, technophiliac landscape of popular music has the album's perceptible weight and independence. For the first time, Welch and Rawlings worked without brilliant producer and friend T-Bone Burnett. "This was the most extreme case of us just going and playing the songs," Welch says. "And I usually have a couple of guitars I consider my recording guitars; this time a lot of the record was recorded with my road guitar, an old Gibson J-50 from the '50s. The whole thing is probably the most organic record we've made. There was no one else around. It was just Dave, Matt and myself. There was no label, no A&R man, no producer, not even a second engineer. There's no fall guy, no one to point a finger at, no one to say he made us do it, he rushed us. If no one liked the record, there's no one to blame. We had to see what we could do on our own. I think so highly of T-Bone that it was time to see how good of a record we could make without him, to get rid of any unfair advantage. We just had to see; it was part of this whole air of self-sufficiency. We went it alone on every front. As a result, everybody is doing a little bit of everything. All of our names are on the record for a duty: I'm the artist, Dave is the producer, Matt is the engineer. Tasks are actually more intermingled than that. Matt did some producing, Dave did some engineering, I did some engineering. I'm on the cover as the artist, but it's just a way to represent it to the world. We're actually a really, really small band called Gillian Welch."
Welch's third album is also her first for Acony, her newly formed self-run label. Her departure from Almo Sounds, hardly a corporate monster, fits the fiercely self-reliant tone of her new music. "Almo was a real live independent," she says. "We were distributed through Geffen on the first record and Interscope on the second. But we're now way above and beyond sales for those records. We're close to having shipped 100,000, and we've Sound Scanned close to 60,000. I've got nothing but good things to say about DNA, our distribution company. I don't like to talk about this, but it's important to say that we're a little artist-run label, with indie distribution, and we're doing four times the volume than we did with Almo. I think it's a case that DNA is a much smaller machine and we're a bigger priority for them. It's that classic small-business mentality.
"But we are the producers, the label, the songwriters, the act," she continues. "It was a big lesson in accountability, in all respects, creative and financial. If this record had come out and stiffed, I would be completely bankrupt. I'm not even kidding a little bit."
Even with her participation on the multiplatinum O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Welch is far from fiscal security: "I'm not gonna see shit from that album. I could tell you to the penny how much I'll see, and you'd laugh. That doesn't matter; that's not why I was involved in that project. It's a little bit too bad that Mercury is gonna make a ton of money off it but nobody else is. But that's neither here nor there. That's just how big labels work."
If Time (The Revelator) marks a beginning, it also marks an accounting, a raising of the stakes and a testing of the very limits of that confessional singer/songwriter mode. Welch digs back into the earliest confessions, those harrowing folk and blues songs, which, traditional or not, were born from experience. Time (The Revelator) is about revelations, visions, admonitions and dreams, which, in the end, always seem obscure. For Son House, John, the author of the Bible's last book, was the Revelator because he was a visionary.
For Welch, Time is the revelator, because she knows that time alone will reveal what we only speculate about here and now. The title track combines the ominous absurdity of Dylan's John Wesley Harding-era parables -- "Nothing is revealed," Dylan's neighbor boy mutters at the end of "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" -- with the ominous melodic and lyrical quality of Young's "Cortez the Killer" and "Ambulance Blues." Welch faces those thorny questions of artistic authenticity head-on: All the doubts that have always swirled around her work have, perhaps, cut deeper than we could have known: "Darling, remember, when you come to me/that I'm the pretender, and not what I'm supposed to be/But who could know if I'm a traitor/Time's the revelator."
What does time reveal? A voice, two guitars and songs whose beauty time can never steal.