Jump to content

Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest


Recommended Posts

One listen isn't going to give me the clearest assessment, but at this point I'm calling it a monster. It more than atones for the sins of Soul Journey.In fact, it may equal Time (the revelator)... and probably rivals it in its somber, harmonic diversity.

Late-night lamenting, motel room, half-empty bottle of Johnny Walker-blues... and pure magic. These two are nothing short of transcendent together.

This is somewhat tangential to this album, which I look forward to hearing, but I wonder if anyone struggles with a lack of authenticity in Gillian's music. The context: I have a good friend, a talented country/bluegrass musician, who grew up in the hollers of Kentucky, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, etc. When he sings his Gothic country songs, he sounds like he knows the territory, probably because he does. This same friend has nothing but scorn for Gillian Welch. He views her as a pretender, a spoiled SoCal rich kid doing her Mother Maybelle Carter impersonation, dressing up in thrift store dresses and putting on a good Appalachian accent.

I confess that I'm not particularly sympathetic to this view. It may be accurate as far as it goes, but Gillian sounds authentic to me, and that's all that matters. I think the music has to stand or fall on its own, and it stands just fine as far as I'm concerned. I'm no more concerned by this apparent discrepancy than I am by the millionaire Bruce Springsteen writing odes for the blue collar workers in Jersey. But I'm curious if anyone else has reacted to Gillian's music in the same way as my friend. Is she a fraud?

I think what Gillian does is no different than what Bobby Zimmerman from Duluth did almost 50 years ago. All popular musicians assume some form of persona on stage or in their recordings. Whether or not someone gets a "pass" on their respective personas depends on several factors. But in the case of traditional music, a big factor would be how well they've studied and know the nuts and bolts -- as well as the spirit-- of the form. On this count, she and David have few peers. They are master students of the form.

I did watch a concert video of hers recently and noted to myself that she even had the drawl down (In that vein, Dylan at times talks like a black man, imo) She certainly looks the part. Even her facial features have that angular, Appalachian look, so nothing about her seems affected in the slightest to me. I think bluegrass dudes hate her because she takes the traditional folk moorings and goes sacrilegious by adding something slightly rock n' roll and distinctly Dave-n-Gillian to it all, to produce music that's far more endearing and sonically varied than any traditional country album.

Edited by Greg P

"The things we enjoy are channels through which the divine glory strikes us, and those who love and delight in any good thing may yet learn to love God." --Gilbert Meilaender

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • Replies 59
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Top Posters In This Topic

I agree with all these comments.

To expand a bit, I think that one of the things that steams my friend is that he believes that there are many musicians and singers/songwriters who are just as talented as Gillian and Dave, but who haven't had the breaks they've had because of their privileged backgrounds and "industry insider" connections.

And that's probably true. It's true in every other genre of music, too. It helps to have money and to know the right people. For what it's worth, my friend records under the name of "Hayseed," he writes great rootsy country songs, he sounds like George Jones, and he has people like Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams singing with him. He's the real deal. One could argue that he's gotten a lot farther than many equally deserving musicians. But he's had labels fold, a severe lack of promotion, etc.

That happens, too, which doesn't make it stink any less. And so I suspect that sour grapes might have something to do with his lamentations.

Link to post
Share on other sites
To expand a bit, I think that one of the things that steams my friend is that he believes that there are many musicians and singers/songwriters who are just as talented as Gillian and Dave, but who haven't had the breaks they've had because of their privileged backgrounds and "industry insider" connections.

I think your friend has a misconception about why people connect with certain artists.

"Talent" by itself -- or to be specific, instrumental facility/musical ability-- is one the least important factors for the majority of people who buy albums and attend concerts. I include myself in that number. In musical spheres, objective "talent" and musical ability is one of the most common commodities out there. When I lived in Nashville i was constantly struck by the unending supply of wonderfully skilled and unheralded instrumentalists and tunesmiths prowling the circuit. They ran the gamut from yellow-tooth prodigies to white-bearded geezers in wheelchairs who rolled up to the pedal steel once a week at the Elks club.

With the exception of certain niche, geek-oriented music circles, the public at large buys into brands, personas, myths, stories, something distinctive/unique, feelings and emotions. It's common for people who play traditional jazz, country or folk music to think the world owes them a listen because of their purist presentation of"authenticity", but I beg to differ. Very few people care about that music model.

I will cross sea and land to hear Gillian & David because listening to their music takes me to an emotional realm that's very vivid. Of course I also love Gillian's songwriting-- her understated strumming, her beautiful, vulnerable voice and David's supportive noodling and striking harmonies, but my attachment to her music is more than the sum of all that objective stuff.

Edited by Greg P

"The things we enjoy are channels through which the divine glory strikes us, and those who love and delight in any good thing may yet learn to love God." --Gilbert Meilaender

Link to post
Share on other sites

With the exception of certain niche, geek-oriented music circles, the public at large buys into brands, personas, myths, stories, something distinctive/unique, feelings and emotions. It's common for people who play traditional jazz, country or folk music to think the world owes them a listen because of their purist presentation of"authenticity", but I beg to differ. Very few people care about that music model.

I think that's true for pop music in general. But it gets more complicated when dealing with those musical niches, and, for better or worse, Gillian and David are working within one of those niches.

If you write and sing from the perspective of an Appalachian folksinger, as Gillian does, it's natural for people to ask, "hey, what do you know about it?" And the reality is that Gillian doesn't know much about it. Or, to put it a different way, she can and does imagine it, and she does a great job doing so, but she hasn't lived it.

Let me ask you this, Greg. Let's say that you or I write a batch of songs from the perspective of a slave on a pre-Civil War plantation in South Carolina. Is it or is it not appropriate for the descendants of slaves to ask, "What the hell are you doing?" I can imagine such a life, of course, just as you can. But I can also understand why those descendants of slaves might view my offering with a mixture of disbelief and contempt.

I don't come from the hollers of Kentucky, and therefore it's difficult for me to truly understand and appreciate the perspective of someone who views a Hollywood kid singing about whiskey stills as a clueless impostor. But I do know that cultural identity is a precious thing. I can understand the reaction that says, "get over it; she's making it up." But I can also understand the reaction that says "you may know wine spritzers, but you don't know jack about moonshine."

Edited by Andy Whitman
Link to post
Share on other sites
Guest Thom Jurek

With the exception of certain niche, geek-oriented music circles, the public at large buys into brands, personas, myths, stories, something distinctive/unique, feelings and emotions. It's common for people who play traditional jazz, country or folk music to think the world owes them a listen because of their purist presentation of"authenticity", but I beg to differ. Very few people care about that music model.

I think that's true for pop music in general. But it gets more complicated when dealing with those musical niches, and, for better or worse, Gillian and David are working within one of those niches.

If you write and sing from the perspective of an Appalachian folksinger, as Gillian does, it's natural for people to ask, "hey, what do you know about it?" And the reality is that Gillian doesn't know much about it. Or, to put it a different way, she can and does imagine it, and she does a great job doing so, but she hasn't lived it.

Let me ask you this, Greg. Let's say that you or I write a batch of songs from the perspective of a slave on a pre-Civil War plantation in South Carolina. Is it or is it not appropriate for the descendants of slaves to ask, "What the hell are you doing?" I can imagine such a life, of course, just as you can. But I can also understand why those descendants of slaves might view my offering with a mixture of disbelief and contempt.

I don't come from the hollers of Kentucky, and therefore it's difficult for me to truly understand and appreciate the perspective of someone who views a Hollywood kid singing about whiskey stills as a clueless impostor. But I do know that cultural identity is a precious thing. I can understand the reaction that says, "get over it; she's making it up." But I can also understand the reaction that says "you may know wine spritzers, but you don't know jack about moonshine."

Andy, your point is valid, no doubt, but we are dealing with popular music here. Gillian and David make music that does, for the most part, stick to narrow genres, and uses sometimes very specific cultural archetypes to get their songs across. That said, I think first and foremost she is a storyteller who fully inhabits her persona. The entire folk music revival of the late 50s that gave birth to the 60s explosion was created by college kids, same with the blues revival of the period and tons of other examples. Purists in any genre drive me out of my freaking mind (when Wynton was doing his thing when he was younger and claiming the later Coltrane and electric Miles weren't "jazz," I wanted to break his neck, but he's grown up a bit.) I will question someone's musical abilities in the genre they've chosen to play inside, but I am no one to question anybody's authenticity about trying to play anything. In pop music--and no matter that they record on an independent label, Gillian and David are part of popular culture and have been since they signed to Geffen for their debut record--there is no such thing as "authenticity. I understand your friend may question his tradition being diluted and capitalized on by an outsider, but that tradition came from somewhere initially and changed (A.P Carter himself "collected" songs from many Celtric and Ango traditions and changed them for his own purposes)--it's what folk traditions have always done as they've evolved through history. Gillian Welch inhabits a persona; but its one she writes inside of extremely well and one where there are plenty of historical sources and an adequate foundation of archetypes to draw from--not merely stereotypes. She happens to write exceptionally crafted songs that are crafted with great care. As a listener, the stories she tells inform my view of the world and make my experience of it more open, that's all I require from a songwriter, a novelist, a poet, a painter, an artist of any stripe.

Link to post
Share on other sites
If you write and sing from the perspective of an Appalachian folksinger, as Gillian does, it's natural for people to ask, "hey, what do you know about it?" And the reality is that Gillian doesn't know much about it. Or, to put it a different way, she can and does imagine it, and she does a great job doing so, but she hasn't lived it.
True. But what did Dylan know about riding the rails or about "fixin' to die"? By purist standards, that guy was a straight-up poseur with his Okie hobo/country bluesman persona.

I would say Gillian doesn't know much about being a red clay Appalachian farm girl, but she bows before the musical tradition that informs that and spins her own version of it in a convincing manner-- just like Dylan did. And I give her a pass. There are many traditional artists who grew up in that environment and make "authentic" folk music, but frankly most of them are not anywhere near as interesting to me musically.

Let me ask you this, Greg. Let's say that you or I write a batch of songs from the perspective of a slave on a pre-Civil War plantation in South Carolina. Is it or is it not appropriate for the descendants of slaves to ask, "What the hell are you doing?" I can imagine such a life, of course, just as you can. But I can also understand why those descendants of slaves might view my offering with a mixture of disbelief and contempt.

This is a good point and the fact is, I'm a little inconsistent on the topic. I'm very critical of whites aping historic black music forms, but not so judgmental of say, west coast suburbanites swiping traditional southern music. I cry foul when Joe Henry growls and moans in his tunes like an elderly african american busking in the french quarter, but not so much with a spoiled little Deadhead like Gillian. I think I just have more reverence for the blues and traditional jazz forms than I do for Country/folk/bluegrass.

All singers are really actors. Very few artists sing strictly in an autobiographical mode. At some point every singer is going to sing a song about someone elses experience... about a life not their own. Sometimes these narratives jump cultural lines. Dylan sang about different cultures and people as diverse as Hattie Carroll and Joey Gallo, and I'm not sure how intimately he was acquainted with either world. By my estimation, he unfolds both narratives in his own unique style, with conviction and sincerity and I think that's the most important thing.

An interesting example on Gillian's new album is the tune "Tennessee". For sure she sprinkles imagery and figures distinct to the south, but the music is NOT a traditional country melody. Despite the acoustic instruments and languid pace, the tune has more in common melodically and harmonically with rock n' roll than with traditional southern music. The same goes for other tunes on the new album. This is where she amalgamates the country influences and forges something fresh and distinctly her own, imo.

And I would add, this is probably the main reason why more people listen to Gillian than say, Hayseed.

"The things we enjoy are channels through which the divine glory strikes us, and those who love and delight in any good thing may yet learn to love God." --Gilbert Meilaender

Link to post
Share on other sites

If you write and sing from the perspective of an Appalachian folksinger, as Gillian does, it's natural for people to ask, "hey, what do you know about it?" And the reality is that Gillian doesn't know much about it. Or, to put it a different way, she can and does imagine it, and she does a great job doing so, but she hasn't lived it.
True. But what did Dylan know about riding the rails or about "fixin' to die"? By purist standards, that guy was a straight-up poseur with his Okie hobo/country bluesman persona.

I would say Gillian doesn't know much about being a red clay Appalachian farm girl, but she bows before the musical tradition that informs that and spins her own version of it in a convincing manner-- just like Dylan did. And I give her a pass. There are many traditional artists who grew up in that environment and make "authentic" folk music, but frankly most of them are not anywhere near as interesting to me musically.

For the record, I give her a pass, too, and I fully understand and appreciate the points that you and Thom are making. I agree with you. I'm just trying to elaborate on the perspective of my friend, who gets offended when someone who is not a part of his culture tries to appropriate his culture.

It's interesting to me that, for a while at least, Dylan didn't feel comfortable enough in his own skin to admit that he was a middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota. He really did try to foist himself off as a hobo who rode the rails, who worked for a while as a cowboy on a ranch outside Gallup, New Mexico, etc. None of it was true. That tells me that there's something behind the "authenticity" argument, even though it's also fundamentally flawed, I believe. It's probably also the impetus behind the assumption that everytime a singer sings "I," he or she must be writing autobiographically. That's not true either, but these assumptions die hard.

Edited by Andy Whitman
Link to post
Share on other sites

My 5-star review:

But Welch doesn't live in the past so much as she brings ancient wisdom to bear in the present. One song, "The Way It Goes," begins with a decidedly modern reference to heroin injection. It isn't an addict's lament so much as it's a grim, darkly comedic take on the circle of life; death circles overhead, even as "everybody's buying little baby clothes." The song's very title hints at the album's underlying themes, an almost fatalistic outlook that isn't cynical so much as it's doggedly honest about the nature of reaping and sowing. (The album's title is anything but random.)

There's also a song called "The Way the Whole Thing Ends," and another called "The Way It Will Be." The latter—a song about self-made ruin—summarizes everything here in one short line: "The way you made it, that's the way it will be." The whole album is rife with scenarios that prove that statement true.

"Tennessee" is a ghostly epic of self-destruction ("It's only what I want that makes me weak"), and "Down Along the Dixie Line" is a post-Civil War Southerner's lament for a world that can never be returned to. Grace shines through the darkness indirectly here—in the better-times hopefulness of "Hard Times" and in the gallows humor that peppers the album—but, for all its darkness, the album isn't dispirited so much as it's informed by harsh, hard-won wisdom: The choices we make matter, and if we all got exactly what we deserved, there'd be nothing left but hard times and toil.

Partner in Cahoots

www.cahootsmag.com

Link to post
Share on other sites

Great review Josh.

I've only listened to the album a couple of times, so I don't have much to comment on yet. Well, other than it is great so far.

I do have a question. In the handful of reviews I've read there seems to be a sentiment that people were pretty down on her pervious effort Soul Journey. Why? Was it the full band sound? I guess it's probably my least favorite album of hers, but it's not a bad record at all. Actually, I think it's really good, which makes me confused as to why there seems to be a downward vibe about.

"It is scandalous for Christians to have an imagination starved for God." - Mark Filiatreau

I write occasionally at Unfamiliar Stars.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Great review Josh.

I've only listened to the album a couple of times, so I don't have much to comment on yet. Well, other than it is great so far.

I do have a question. In the handful of reviews I've read there seems to be a sentiment that people were pretty down on her pervious effort Soul Journey. Why? Was it the full band sound? I guess it's probably my least favorite album of hers, but it's not a bad record at all. Actually, I think it's really good, which makes me confused as to why there seems to be a downward vibe about.

I've noticed that tendency, too, although when it was released Soul Journey was very positively received. My guess is that the revisionist review history reflects the discomfort reviewers have with writing, "Well, Gillian Welch has released another very good album in an ongoing series of very good albums." But that's what she's done.

Edited by Andy Whitman
Link to post
Share on other sites

I've noticed that tendency, too, although when it was released Soul Journey was very positively received. My guess is that the revisionist review history reflects the discomfort reviewers have with writing, "Well, Gillian Welch has released another very good album in an ongoing series of very good albums." But that's what she's done.

Could it be that this recording is Gillian's best since her last one?

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

Link to post
Share on other sites
I do have a question. In the handful of reviews I've read there seems to be a sentiment that people were pretty down on her pervious effort Soul Journey. Why? Was it the full band sound? I guess it's probably my least favorite album of hers, but it's not a bad record at all. Actually, I think it's really good, which makes me confused as to why there seems to be a downward vibe about.

It's not a bad, album by any stretch, but it contains some lousy songs and as a result made for an inconsistent effort. In its defense, it also features a couple of my favorite Gillian tunes -- Wrecking Ball and Lovers Prayer. I just wish she'd stuck with the ramshackle Wrecking Ball vibe and put out a ragged-ass electric album.

Edited by Greg P

"The things we enjoy are channels through which the divine glory strikes us, and those who love and delight in any good thing may yet learn to love God." --Gilbert Meilaender

Link to post
Share on other sites

I don't think there's much point in worrying about authenticity and purity in American folk, country or bluegrass. Pure and authentic expressions do still exist, but they're increasingly rare. Hybridization/dilution began with the introduction of the gramophone, the radio and the automobile. Bluegrass is by definition a hybrid, technology-dependent form, drawing from country, blues, and Scots/Irish traditions and relying on the use of microphones to balance the instruments' output. There is no such thing as pure bluegrass. The '60s proved that New Englanders and Jews could play bluegrass as well as Southerners; the '70s proved that even Californians could play it. The Del McCoury Band may be the foremost "traditional" bluegrass band going; Del McCoury is from Pennsylvania.

If white people weren't allowed to write from the perspective of black slaves, we wouldn't have The Confessions of Nat Turner or Uncle Tom's Cabin, for starters. Bill Monroe was never a race horse; he didn't die in childhood; he never, AFAIK, had to track down a little darling who got lost in a snowstorm; he never worked in a mine or on an ocean vessel; but he was somehow able to perform credible renditions of songs written from those perspectives.

Edited by mrmando

Let's Carl the whole thing Orff!

Do you know the deep dark secret of the avatars?

It's big. It's fat. It's Greek.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks for the thoughts on why reviews have been sort of down on Soul Journey. My own take is that it is sort of a combination between Soul Journey being the least great of a great discography and it also happened to be the last album before a really long hiatus? Least favorite album followed by a long period of artistic silence? That certainly sounds like an angle to take in a review. The problem with the angle (as we've mentioned here and in the REM thread) is that it doesn't really hold water when said album is pretty darn good and has held up very well on its own.

"It is scandalous for Christians to have an imagination starved for God." - Mark Filiatreau

I write occasionally at Unfamiliar Stars.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Colin Meloy on Gillian Welch:

You get the sense that there's, like, a direct channel between her heart and her lips. I don't think the girl has an oesophagus; she's got a some kind of weird, fleshy soul-conduit.

Which is a nice complement to the David Cronenberg-like connection between Rawlings and the upper registers on his guitar. I swear I have seen him surreptitiously disconnect that 3/4 antique from his umbilicus.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

Link to post
Share on other sites

Last night I finally listened to the new album on my good stereo, alone, in the dark -- the way music is meant to be listened to! I can't say I'm in love with every song, but a couple of them are just exhaustingly beautiful. Gillian's delivery on "Tennessee" is one of the finest vocal performances I've ever heard.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


×
×
  • Create New...