Gillian Welch Raises Hell … Quietly

Gillian Welch’s second release, Hell Among the Yearlings (Almo Sounds), is the most spare and lovely album since Nick Drake’s Pink Moon . Most of Ms. Welch’s neo-Appalachian folk songs consist of just her and her partner, David Rawlings, singing and plucking guitars or a stray banjo. “Dave and I really get off on just having four things going on: two voices, two guitars,” Ms. Welch said. “It’s really fun to see what you can do with these limits.”

Hell Among the Yearlings opens with the pair doing their “four things” in such a lively manner that a listener almost misses that “Caleb Meyer” is about a woman using a broken bottle to cut the throat of the moonshiner who raped her. In the next song, a subdued Ms. Welch murmurs, “Fall down wasted and I feel I’m going down …” Next: “The Devil had a hold of me.” Then, a love song about morphine. Followed by a fast number about Death’s black horse.

Let’s stop here to say that as down as all this sounds, the record’s plaintive beauty is strangely uplifting. It might even be a masterpiece, but that word has been bandied about much too much in regard to Lucinda Williams’ new record. No, time will be the best indicator of this album’s status. Besides, the original promo cassette was even better, containing two superb Welch cemetery songs-both now omitted-”Company Grave Blues” and “New Dug Grave.” The songs on the advance cassette were also in a different order; the album’s tempos are still the same (fast-slow-fast-slow), but originally the second song was “My Morphine,” which shed a different light on the singer when she ends up stumbling “wasted” two songs later. And when Ms. Welch sang “I’m Not Afraid to Die,” it became a junkie’s proclamation. That song is still included, as well as a new one, “Rock of Ages,” but they now appear as life preservers against commercial suicide.

Why did Ms. Welch soften her album? “I removed the songs that didn’t fit,” she said. But she’s dodging. The earlier tape contained so much gravedigging that when Ms. Welch went down in a coal mine (“Miner’s Refrain,” still included), it was as if Hades had relocated to Appalachia.

What Ms. Welch can’t hide is that druggy, Tonight’s the Night feel to many of the songs. You half expect her to start singing about the overdose of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten. Ms. Welch admits her Neil Young influence, but she’s a little surprised, as if she’s been found out. “We would play ‘For the Turnstiles’ for T-Bone [Burnett] and say, ‘This is what we want it to sound like,’” she said, referring to her producer.

Mr. Young isn’t the only non-bluegrass musician Ms. Welch appreciates. She’s no purist; it wasn’t until she attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music, after growing up in Southern California, that she met Rhode Island-born guitarist David Rawlings and they both focused their mutual appreciation of the Pixies into a love of bluegrass culture. “I’ve always thought there was a correlation between bluegrass and pre-bluegrass stuff and the whole punk music scene,” Mr. Rawlings said. “They’re both so raw .”

Ms. Welch began writing “raw” country songs, and in 1992 the couple moved to Nashville so she could give it a go as a songwriter. Three years later, she snagged her first big catch when Emmylou Harris covered Ms. Welch’s lovely, title-says-it-all “Orphan Girl” on her album Wrecking Ball . Then in 1996, Ms. Welch and Mr. Rawlings hooked up with T-Bone Burnett to produce her first record, Revival . Mr. Burnett recorded much of Revival in mono, a retro-technique that beautifully captured Ms. Welch’s assortment of bluegrass songs, hymns and pre-jukebox rock-and-roll. The record was later nominated for a Best Contemporary Folk Grammy, although Ms. Welch tagged herself as an “American primitive” rather than a folkie.

Hell Among the Yearlings is the platter the grim couple portrayed in American Gothic would make if they were musicians. One reason why the Thanatos vibe is so strong on the new album is that renowned acoustic bass player Roy Husky Jr., who rounded the Welch-Rawlings team into a trio, died of lung cancer at 40 last September. “We couldn’t bear to replace him,” Ms. Welch said sadly. “So we just did it as a duo.”

Nine of the 11 songs are duets, but the album’s high point is a trio on the next-to-last song, “Whiskey Girl,” in which T-Bone plays a brooding Hammond B3 organ as if he were a stoned Phantom of the Opera. The album’s drugs-’n’-death vibe is erased for one glorious moment on “Honey Now,” a short, electric rhythm-track ditty that rocks along like a cut from a late 40′s race record. One suspects that if Ms. Welch and Mr. Rawlings ever actually “plug in” in earnest, they’ll give the ghost of the Pixies a run for their money. “David and I play electric sometimes,” Ms. Welch confessed. “And I love playing it, but I don’t see how it fits in with my songwriting.”

This love of electricity leads one to examine (but not question) Ms. Welch’s musical sincerity. Her parents were the chief songwriters for the old Carol Burnett Show . In fact, Ms. Welch calls Ms. Burnett her “spiritual godmother.” So, how did a girl like that get so immersed in what Greil Marcus calls “the old weird America”? What does she know of, say, that High Lonesome sound? It’s not like she grew up in the hill country portrayed in the short film of the same name made in the mid-1960′s by New Lost City Ramblers leader John Cohen, that black-and-white wilderness where hillbillies play banjos on the porches of shacks lined with newspaper and the faithful hide their faces inside wooden pews as they kneel on the floor praying. How does the spiritual goddaughter of Carol Burnett end up as the reincarnation of Mother Maybelle Carter?

Ms. Welch is a quick study. For instance, she obsessively scrutinizes old hymnals. “I have a stack of eight or 10 on top of the piano,” she said. “There’s Methodist and Lutheran and Baptist-all denominations. I compare how the lyrics vary, and I note the phrases you keep seeing over and over.” She sometimes takes her anthropological skills to an interesting extreme. Today’s hillbillies have radar dishes, while Ms. Welch and Mr. Rawlings didn’t even own a TV until last year. Now they’re only 40 years behind the rest of us, having inherited Mr. Rawlings’ grandmother’s black-and-white set. How self-conscious can a couch potato get? But it’s just such self-consciousness that makes the duo weirdly authentic in a way only possible at the end of the 20th century, when many record executives believe the Rolling Stones’ fame began with Some Girls .

So bless Gillian Welch for studying her hymnals and for carrying a torch for old bluegrass icons like Ralph Stanley, whom she sings a duet with on his recently released Clinch Mountain Country . At this rate, Walker Evans may rise from the grave to snap her picture.