“Ain’t No One Soul
In the Whole World
Knows My Name
Up In the Sky
And I’ll See It
By and By”. [GillianWelch. No One Knows My Name].
Visualise a world without Gillian Welch. What kind of picture does it paint? A surreal, self conceived universe that exists in the corner of every small town, small minded pub. This vision of stifled culture, and suppressed emotions, somehow tunes into an all too frequent rehash of crowded weekend cliques, featuring gabby hairdressers in starring roles, clad in cropped trousers, and painfully-hip kitten-heeled pumps, merging like jigsaw pieces, as the alcohol sozzled evening reaches its zenith, with council estate pretty boys, whose one common motivational force is the application of hair gel, in the manner of creosote oozing from unsuspecting telegraph poles, on lonely, perpetually November, bog roads.
It becomes an all too bleak vision, an Irish Saturday night still hungover from the mid 1990s, the ideal Petri dish for the ‘gender liberating’ cackles of Shania Twain, to procreate with stagnant Garth Brooks relics, and conceive the Irish bastard child, known as ‘Country’ music.
Some of us actually existed in this Lewis Carroll fantasy, where the likes of Vince Gill, Billy Ray Cyrus, Faith Hill, and their multitude of linear cohorts, were viewed as being higher on the food chain, than the previously designated ‘Country’ outpourings of Big Tom, T.R. Dallas, Susan McCann, and Ireland’s answer to a question nobody asked, Foster and Allen.
Hell, that’s the danger of having a ‘Let’s take the next best thing’ attitude…
“I Met a Lovesick Daughter
Of the San Joaquin
She Showed Me Colours
I’d Never Seen” [Wrecking Ball]
Our collective repression could have been viewed as gradually accepting the lesser evil through each passing trend and phase, until we would finally successfully conclude our mythical quest for enlightenment, at the feet of Hank Williams’ Budda like reincarnation. But no matter how frantically we searched, we could never truly engage with that golden entity, and we were destined to eternally wallow in our George Webbs and black Wranglers, at a lost opportunity called life, as we meekly accepted the jostling and snide threats of those gabby hairdressers, and suffocating manicured pretty boys, floating down shit creek beside us.
For those of us who successfully negotiated our way out of the C.M.T.V. labyrinth, many sparkling interstate highways beckoned. Thanks to the vindication of ultra hip icons likeTownes Van Zandt, and Gram Parsons, whose testimonies, signed in blood, weaved a tapestry of solid gold, alongside kosher stalwarts, such as J.R Cash, and Willie Nelson. It was the ultimate cornucopia, and the worthy receivers of redemption were about to feast on the fruits of their labour.
My own chartered course was a tad less sculptured by the romanticism of Jim Beam guzzling, tobacky chewin’ beacons of grade ‘A’ cool. The outrageously maligned Irish Times was my creaking wooden signpost, in the heart of down-home territory, and its flaking paint pointed me towards Gillian Welch county. Things were starting to look up, as that ‘Wrecking Ball’ mercilessly destroyed abominable demonic idols, like Alan Jackson in a manner too graphic for the Old Testament, and colours magically crafted by San Joaquin’s daughter glowed like a rainbow, upon my new world order.
When Welch began to holler “I Want To Sing/That Rock n’ Roll/I Want to ‘Lecrify My Soul”, [I Want To Sing That Rock N’ Roll], I immediately envisioned a little girl swaying on a creaking front porch seat. Hypnotised by the enchanting lure of Son House, Charley Patton, and Bessie Smith. She tapped her frail fingers in key to the stifling din of chirping crickets, and deep down inside I just knew that one evening’s sunset, would be another evening’s Sun Sessions…
As the neon infested glow of post Millennium hype was seeping into the horizon of post- modern lethargy, something altogether more intriguing than universal computer shut down, was probing at my cultural circuits. The Appalachian like waif, in Gingham dress, and freshly polished black laced brogues. She was still there at the back of my mind.The vision, no different to thousands of 1950s Irish first holy communion girls, that I had first encountered in a dream like aura in the pages of The Irish Times, was luring me in the manifestation of a siren, to come taste more of her chicken and dumplings, in a scene reminiscent of the supernatural river ‘seduction’ of Oh Brother Where Art Thou. Obviously the Coen Brothers were in the same frame of mind as me, when they asked Welch to appear on the soundtrack. At least I was safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be shystered like Clooney et all, had been, by those mythical wenches.
It’s difficult to pinpoint my first ‘experience’ of Gillian Welch. From the mysteriously enticing newspaper article, where she stood staunch and defiant, stark as forked lightning, dissecting with minimal effort, all pop culture artefacts, that dared to come within radius of the glowing review of a previous night’s concert in Limerick, Galway, orCork. Or the wee small hours ‘Just the d.j. and Me’ radio shows, where John Kelly, Alison Curtis, and Donal Dineen, rightfully sang her praises, as the first, truly no-bullshit, anti-hero of the 21st century. These rainy, early morning, tomcat bawling engagements, the kind of vivid solitude previously expressed in graphic detail by Bon Scott on Night Prowler, brought an eerie, apocalyptic revelation to Welch’s already bleak passages, of a world where Tim McGraw, would be first to skip town on the back of a slow rolling freight liner, as the real John Duncans of this, or indeed, any other world rode in on horseback, and things would never be the same, for any unfortunate bystander, innocent or otherwise. And in no better place could this bellowing picture of Hades be best summed up, than on Ruination Day. Welch’s bone chilling use of imagery, created an aural canvas, to rival Dante’s Inferno, where the Malebolge transmogrifies into a 1920s Calvin Cooledge era dustbowl, and poor wretched souls stare on in undiluted, uncensored horror, as “The Great Emancipator/Took a Bullet/In the Back/Of the Head”. Welch could have just as easily been referring to Abe Lincoln, J.F.K., M.L.K., or any other bastion of hope for Uncle Sam’s undeclared multitude of minions, but the calendar and clock remain the same in this kind of environment, as you feel the pleasure and pain of a world where tumbleweed listlessly travels at its own desired pace, unaware or untroubled by the latest Icarus like casualty of the ‘American Way’ to come crashing down in a sea of mixed horror and apathy, as he reached beyond the limits destiny had set for him.
Not too bad for a chick born in Manhattan and raised in Los Angeles.
One may understandably find it difficult to ‘introduce’ oneself into Welch’s mysterious Carnivale-like convoy of cheats, beggars, men in long black coats, murderers, domineering southern mamas, and darker-than-the-bowels-of-hell nights, which almost miraculously become sunny, dew glistening, Kansas sunflower mornings prompting Welch to break out of natural, unrehearsed, character and “Sing that yellow birds song/For the Troubled Times/Will Soon Be Gone”, “Acony Bell” or petulantly tease all pretenders with “Which Lover Are You/Jack Of Diamonds/Now You Be Emmylou/And I’ll Be Gram” [I Dream A Highway] and who could dare challenge her rightful boast to be elevated to such a level? When she herself, plays her hand with the primal abandon of a sister with nothing to lose, and a devil may care attitude, Keith Richards would die for.
All in all, Welch, with the assistance and guile of the underrated David Rawlings, seems to be a yet another justified link to that “Lone Star State Of Mind” first truly examined by Jimmie Rodgers, and despite the exposure to so many of life’s cold hearted foibles, as starkly demonstrated by “What Will Sustain Us/Through the Winter/Where Did LastYear’s/Lessons Go”[I Dream A Highway], at the epicentre of your soul you just know that Gillian Welch and her fellow dark night of the soul travellers will always land on their feet, just like those of us successfully liberated from the line dancing Gestapo, as we spiritually cruise the highways out of Bakersfield, into that Mojave sense of liberation.
And boy, does it feel pure.
Right on sister.