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Gillian Welsch's music may sound Appalachian, but she's pure L.A.

Sunday, September 13, 1998

By Tony Norman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Gillian Welch doesn't come with a "Made in Appalachia" stamp on her forehead, but folks who've heard her brilliant 1996 debut "Revival" and its 1998 follow-up, "Hell Among the Yearlings," swear they can hear moonshine and hickory in her voice.

 
    Music Preview: Gillian Welch

Where: Rosebud, Strip District.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Tickets: $10 in advance, $12 day of the show; 412-323-1919

 
 

It shocks folks, sometimes it even upsets them, to find out she's not from Kentucky or thereabouts. She may sing about Satan living in her whiskey machine in "Tear My Stillhouse Down" and recount with harrowing detail the killing of a drunken rapist in "Caleb Meyer," but the 30-year-old neo-traditionalist singer didn't even grow up within tobacco spitting distance of either the Hatfields or the McCoys.

Welch, who will be in Pittsburgh for a Wednesday show at Rosebud, hails from West Los Angeles. Instead of stirring moonshine under the stars, her parents wrote songs for "The Carol Burnett Show." Instead of scratching out a backwoods existence a la "Li'l Abner," Welch discovered bluegrass and country music at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

None of which detracts a whit from her authenticity.

"Clearly I have a different relationship with art than some people do," she said in a phone interview from the road. "I think people have been misled by too much entertainment television. They seem to be confused about the art that people make and the lives they lead, and they kinda think they're the same."

Well, people would be cool with her being from L.A. as long as she didn't attend Beverly Hills High and claim that dreaded ZIP code, right?

"Even if I was from Beverly Hills High, so what?" Welch said with bit of defensiveness in her laugh. "It's the whole fallacy of that position. That's the irritating thing about people calling me on where I grew up. Aside from the fact I'm from L.A. County, they don't know anything about me. And that's always how it's going to be when you look at a painting or a song. You're never going to know what's going on with that person. The best you could do is look at their work of art."

When you look at the work of Gillian Welch, or better yet listen to it, you hear echoes of her heroes: Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, the Blue Sky Boys and the Stanley Brothers. She's also indebted to the Pixies, Camper van Beethoven and R.E.M., but she's never attempted to put all the elements of her various musical passions into one stew.

"I like all that stuff," she said. "But I'm not trying to synthesize everything. When my partner [David Rawlings] and I started, if anything was going on, we were simply trying to be the Stanley Brothers. And what happened was, we just missed the mark. You could only come so close, but there was no synthesis of stuff going on."

So how was she able to tap into the spirit of traditional roots music so persuasively?

"The same way anybody does," she said. "I've listened to a lot of it, and for some reason, it's the right thing for me to do. I'm a huge fan and devotee of traditional music. There's something about the people who play music that is sort of at the beginning of the genre [that moves me.]"

When "Revival" hit the streets two years ago, pop critics went nuts over everything from the stark, black-and-white cover photo of Welch wearing a decidedly unglamorous polka dot dress to her haunting observations on lives in the balance between rural desperation and poetic resignation:

"Oh the night came undone like a party dress/And fell at her feet in a beautiful mess/The smoke and the whiskey came home in her curls/And they crept through the dreams of the barroom girls" (from "Barroom Girls").

"When we went in to make 'Revival,' we had between 25 and 30 songs, all self-penned. I didn't necessarily dig all of those songs, I'd just written them and liked them to varying degrees. It was really [producer] T-Bone [Burnett] who wrote down all the titles, listened to them and said, 'These are the songs that are really you.' "

Burnett surrounded Welch and Rawlings with ace session men like Jim Keltner, Greg Leisz and Roy Huskey Jr. the first time out. But for "Hell Among the Yearlings," Welch and Rawlings flesh out the songs with their own vocals and musicianship, with a cameo by Burnett on one track only.

"I was trying to make a more focused record than 'Revival' with this one," she said of "Hell Among the Yearlings." "This record was written from October to March, so it's more constricted thematically. It's what went on in my head last winter."

And what does the title refer to?

"It's a cowboy phrase from when they were driving a huge herd of cattle. If they were going to get trouble, they were going to get it from the yearling, the 1-year-old. They're like teen-agers in bull years. They're rowdy and unpredictable."

Kind of an obscure title for an album about death, loss of innocence and life's subtle mysteries, isn't it?

"It's served its purpose," she said. "Every time I hear someone say it, I get a smile on my face. It's a very entertaining title."



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