Note: This is the first in a series of posts on kitsch. (Hopefully.)
The man and woman appear on stage like a couple cast out of time. She wears a dress — call it a prairie dress — with cowboy boots, a look so incongruous it must be deliberate. The man wears a grey suit without tie. The top and bottoms match but they look well rumpled, thoroughly slept in. They carry guitar cases and set them down at the rear of the stage. There’s a table on which they place a small, narrow case. It looks like a little suitcase, except tall, like it might contain a dollhouse or a couple bottles of wine. It has rounded corners and a handle on top. They unlatch the front of the case, which swings open door-like, and inside are four shelves. It’s a miniature cabinet of curiosities. From my position in the crowd I can’t see what’s in those little shelves though I’m terribly curious. These two people have walked out on stage and promptly turned their backs to us, to tune up and explore their tiny wardrobe.
For early May in Alabama, it’s strangely cold. No one is properly dressed for this festival. It’s only in the 40s, but we’re all in flip-flops and jeans, T-shirts and mini-skirts. The shivering crowd is ready for some serious entertainment.
Eventually they turn around and make preliminary sidelong glances to one another. She plays a big-bellied sunburst Gibson acoustic. He plays a much smaller archtop, a nameless, historically vague instrument, like something retrieved from a junk store. These festivals always occur in May, just before the pestilence of summer. But today it might as well be February. We add to their strumming the percussion of our chattering teeth.
I don’t remember the first song they play. Let’s say it’s “Elvis Presley Blues,” the mid-tempo, drunk-a-loping ballad from their (at that point) latest album Time (the Revelator). The song begins, “I was thinking that night about Elvis, the day that he died . . .” and the singer’s voice — her name is Gillian Welch — breaks like it’s sliding off key, but as she gets the motor of the song running and reaches the lines “he shook it like a chorus girl, he shook it like a Harlem queen,” her companion — his name is David Rawlings — slides under her with his sympathetic harmony, and the song hits this weirdly soothing glassine lilt. I am unprepared. I’ve stopped paying attention to my girlfriend, to whom I’ve promised a sweatshirt. I’ve forgotten even that I’m cold.
I had first heard about them from my girlfriend, who in her first year out of college had become a sponge for new music. It was a fortuitous situation because my acquisition of new music had completely atrophied. I had made it to Aimee Mann, I had made it to Radiohead, but then I had surrendered. My tastes had been set, like an aesthetic Jello mold. But my girlfriend was then like a miniature A&R person. That year she was in a valley of roots music — mandolins and crooning backwoods harmony, delicate finger picking and strange, moonshiny lyrics. Bands she brought in included Welch, Hem, Alison Krauss, Nanci Griffith, Nickel Creek, Wilco (whom she hated), Emmylou Harris. . . She was a bit evangelical as well, buying CDs for everyone for Christmas. I remember when she gave the Welch CD to her parents and her mother called it mournful, which I thought was accurate. The music seemed bleak and scrabbled, dustbowl sad and not, you know, sad in a deep way. Like Radiohead was.
But seeing them in concert was entirely different. There was something in the simplicity of Welch and Rawlings standing alone singing and playing, the utter starkness of it, the utter lack of equipment and gear that was pleasant and challenging. As the son of a musician, a drummer no less, I’ve always been obsessed with how much material stuff it takes to create the simplest pop songs, not just in the studio but also when replicated live. And here were two people with no more gear than what many people have in their closets. They had an intentional primitivism that excited me.
But I had been down this road before. I had seen many a show where the act was interesting live, invigorating, and then I bought their CD — this was, yes, during a time when one still bought CDs — and over the next week or two was slowly educated about my misspent enthusiasm. What happened under the veil of performative darkness was all well and good, transfixing in its seeming excellence, but in the cold harsh light of the morning’s car stereo, the songs didn’t sound nearly as alluring.
But what happened was that when I went back to Time (the Revelator), it only got better. Perhaps it’s because the record is so close to their live performance — still just two guitars and two voices. But this still doesn’t make total sense since an audience always overcompensates. So many concerts can reach lift off merely from the cushion of an audience’s sympathy. But this record rewarded obsessive re-listenings. Like Radiohead did.
I was living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, fifty miles away from Birmingham, and I would commute over to see my girlfriend several times a week. I don’t think at any other point in my life had I spent as much time alone in the car. I would listen again and again to Time. And Time incidentally stopped time in that car, turned it into a moving box of air that Welch and Rawlings strummed. And yet listening to the record was like going back in time. I wasn’t sure what the lyrics referred to but it was odd, non-pop song territory: Oakies and Casey Jones and John Henry.
In the decade-plus since then, the album has only gotten better, historically deeper. It’s one of those albums that comes with hidden hooks that tug at you at least once a year, reeling you back to deal with it again. And I realized that Time came out at the end of July 2001, just before 9/11 happened, and in one of those historical shiverings of coincidence and premonition, the album now seems to be a comment upon 9/11.
First, the album seems obsessed with American myths: in the course of its songs Welch mentions Elvis, the Titanic, the Lincoln assassination, rock and roll, the “road” as mythic and existential stage, etc. The repeated allusions to various American disasters makes one think that the album in particular, and American history more broadly, is just one long string of intermittent catastrophe, a graph of history plotted along points of public violence. So that even though the album of course couldn’t possibly “mention” 9/11, the almost simultaneous occurrence of the two events makes room for the album to be about 9/11 without ever saying it. 9/11 is just another dark dot on the slowly escalating graph of national carnage and despair.
At the same time, the album is soaked in Americana. Though it came out just before 9/11, the record received its primary promotional push from the Coen brothers movie O Brother Where Art Thou. Welch was one of the neo-Appalachian singers who contributed to its soundtrack, and it was the popularity of the soundtrack as much as the movie that helped spread the word about Welch. The old master of American folk music on the soundtrack is Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass singer, who sings an a cappella version of “O Death,” and Stanley is himself like the grim reaper. Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and Welch sing “I’ll Fly Away” together like country music’s new muses. They will resurrect the tradition.
But Welch and Rawlings also benefited from a more general resurgence of the traditional white male, both in music and in culture, which occurred in the wake of 9/11. President George W. Bush’s west Texas disposition, the mustachioed firefighters of NYC, New York Governor Rudy Giuliani, the phrase and sentiment behind “let’s roll,” the general post-catastrophe grip of fear and paranoia that often manifested itself in an old-fashioned jingoist racism — all of this was the historical context for the renaissance of rootsy American music, which is, it must be said, the music of old white people, a pre-rock and roll, which means a kind of music prior to the mass cultural miscegenation represented by rock and roll. It’s a more purely innocent, more purely rural type of music. I’m not saying that Welch and Rawlings in any way tried to co-opt this sentiment, merely that this was the sentiment in the air when they hit public consciousness in a larger way. This brief stretch of “roots music” could possibly be seen as the last truly popular efflorescence of white Americana, a ballad with which to end the Empire.
Which is, of course, a lot to lay on an acoustic duo. I’m also not saying that I thought all of this at the time, while I was shivering out in the darkness watching them work their magic. It’s only in hindsight, with the accumulated grime of time, that this group and this album in particular seem so emblematic.
About two thirds of the way through their set, they acknowledge the cold. They blow on their hands in between songs and grin at one another. Rawlings cinches his coat tighter and Welch buttons up a jean jacket. They apologize for not playing more ballads, say they’re trying to stick to the fast ones to keep the blood going.
At one point, they return to their strange little suitcase. They open the drawers and rustle around inside. I still can’t see what the drawers contain. Then they return to the microphones, Welch holding a harmonica and one of those head-gear like contraptions that allows you to play the harmonica while still playing the guitar. So, it’s their small bag of tricks, their minimal haul of accoutrements. They suddenly seem to me like traveling salesmen, but like time-traveling salesmen, a musical American Gothic, salesmen who come back through time not to sell you goods, or even their music, but to sell you time itself, to sell you an idea of time, to reveal an idea of the past, which isn’t a true duplication of a past time but its bent reflection, a warped convex mirror version of the past, bent by their own two hands, own two voices.