Gillian Takes Her Listeners Back In Time

by | Mar 31, 2005

Alec Wilkinson, frequent contributor to the New Yorker and author of A Violent Act, Moonshine Midnights and Big Sugar published a revealing piece last fall on one of my favorite musicians, Gillian Welch. Here’s a passage, rich with the kind of detail unique to a writer of substance:

Welch is tall and slender. She has a long narrow face, high cheekbones, wide-set eyes, sharp chin, and a toothy smile. She is thirty-six Her skin is pale, and her hair is fine an reddish-brown. Her carriage is upright, and her movements are unhurried and graceful—her shoulders swing slightly as she walks. She collects hymnals, and handmade shoeshine kits, the kind from which people once made a livin on the street. She is inclined toward practicality As a child, she played the piano and the drum but gave them up because she didn’t like being confined to whatever room the instruments were in. Onstage, during instrumental passages she bends her head over her guitar, like a figure in a religious painting, and plays with a ruthless rhythmic precision. There is a sense of self-possession about her that seems more a matter of temperament than influence. Welch is adopted. Her mother, Mitzie, who is a singer, says she is surprised that Welch became a performer, because performers, in her experience, always have a need to please, and her daughter doesn’t seem to.

Welch’s narratives tend to be accounts of resignation, misfortune, or torment. Her characters include itinerant laborers, solitary wanderers, misfits, poor people plagued at every turn by trouble, repentant figures, outlaws, criminals, soldiers, a moonshiner, a farm girl, a reckless beauty queen, a love-wrecked woman, a drug addict, and a child. Her imagination is sympathetic to outcasts who appeal for help to God despite knowing from experience that there isn’t likely to be any. Their theology is ardent and literal. They are given to picturing themselves meeting their families in Heaven, where mysteries too deep to comprehend will finally be explained. “Until we’ve all gone to Jesus / We can only wonder why,” she sings in “Annabelle,” a song about a sharecropper who hopes to give his daughter more than he had but who delivers her to the cemetery instead. A number of Welch’s songs are written from the point of view of male characters. “My Morphine,” the drowsy, intoxicated lament of a man whose addiction is souring, is the only song I am aware of about a narcotic which creates the sensation of having taken the narcotic. She is accomplished at compressing dramatic events into a few verses and a chorus. In “Caleb Meyer,” a man appears, transgresses, dies, and is revived as a spectre in the imagination of the woman who slit his throat in self-defense

I’m presently under a Welch-induced hypnosis, care of the lead track on her latest record, Soul Journey. “Look At Miss Ohio” is a song about a carefree young woman with a penchant for driving around Atlanta “with her ragtop down.” While her mother tries to force a wedding gown on her, she asserts she “wants to do right, but not right now.”