Suspicious Minds

There isn't an American alive who hasn't bought into some myth or another. We're stuck with dreaming, with archetypes and various forms of high-stakes romance. What divides us is where we channel these models, and really, there are only three branches of the kid-yourself river: past, present, and future.

Lately, it's hard to miss a particular trend on the part of music-playing young folks in favor of the first, dipping into the well of old-time chestnuts and hick spirit to write songs that have a whole lot more to do with Moby Dick than Moby per se. It makes sense that post-boomers would find an affinity in country and folk's themes -- hard work for low pay, loneliness, alienation, dread. And even the man who gave the '90s its defining anthem in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" left us in the pines with a fearsome old song as his last public musical breath.

So I'm no purist. Any American who is is either a snob or a fool. All the gifts and thefts between races, subcultures, and generations have left us with a fine pile of records. But that doesn't mean that every borrowed cup of sugar necessarily gets baked into a palatable pie.

Two new albums, Gillian Welch's Revival and Sackcloth 'n' Ashes by Sixteen Horsepower, teeter on the edge of acceptability, half full of good songwriting and dedicated performances, half wrecked by the country equivalent of, say, a New Jersey punk band railing against Margaret Thatcher in fake cockney accents. As the alternacountry movement grows stronger, we're sure to encounter more urbanites like Welch who dust themselves in cracker crumbs in order to feign authenticity. While a sub Mason-Dixon background has always helped in Nashville where Welch now lives, it's hardly de rigueur; heck, even Hank Snow was Canadian. Welch was born and raised in Los Angeles, where her parents wrote music for that West Coast grand ole opry, The Carol Burnett Show. She went on to graduate from UC Santa Cruz (where she fell in love with bluegrass at a pizza joint) and then Boston's Berklee College of Music -- an institution that has already unleashed Branford Marsalis and Juliana Hatfield on our unlucky ears.

My misgivings about Welch are hardly sonic. Her sweet voice is fine and full, at home on both churchy ballads and bluesy drawls, surprisingly unspoiled by the academy's fondness for technique. Her songwriting partner, David Rawlings, plays a lovely, evocative acoustic guitar, not just behind her, but with her. In "By the Mark," a nouveau hymn, his backing vocals curl around hers in the chorus that at first listen could have been written decades ago: "I will know my savior when I come to him/ By the mark where the nails have been."

But decades ago, the great hymnal authors knew their theology; gospel wasn't a postmodern source ripe for appropriation, it was a high-priced ticket to eternity. Any true believer (or unrepentant backslider) knows that Welch's seemingly pious means of Jesus recognition are the sentiments of a certain poseur -- Doubting Thomas -- who forced the resurrected Christ to show his bloody palms before he would accept the miracle; those in the know don't look -- they know.

It's hard stomaching songs told from the points of view of migrant workers and dirt farmers sung by a woman (with a store-bought Southern accent no less) whom you picture sitting on Harvey Korman's knee or attending freshman orientation at Santa Cruz: embarrassing lies like "We lease 20 acres and one Ginny mule/ From the Alabama trust" or, worse, "When I die tear my stillhouse down." Moonshining? What's next? "My Pet Raccoon"?

Besides Welch's subject matter trespasses, there's a humorless reverence in her tone that no real yokel (or fan of yokels) would ever stand for. Colorado's Sixteen Horsepower's songs are less mature artistic statements than hers, but quirkier and wearing a wily grin. Maybe it's because songwriter David Eugene Edwards was raised a Nazarene -- only someone who sat through the horror stories of fundamentalist religion can call on the demon spirits to poke fun using their own pitchforks.

Still, he's a mite heavy-handed himself, words like "mud," "Cain," "gander," "wicked," and "glory land" jump out of his faux old-timey lyric sheets. The thing that saves the band from becoming a solemn culture vulture like Welch is that, you get the feeling, they drink more. ("Come to my yard," Edwards beckons, "I got whiskey 'n' chairs.") They're looser, more immediate, and (I mean this as a compliment) have a little of that old Charlie Daniels Band spirit. Plus, Astor Piazzolla fans will recognize the comely accordion-esque addition of a bandoneon to their sound, adding a little angelic light to an otherwise devilish swamp.

I hardly blame Welch and Sixteen Horsepower for an overdeveloped interest in our own history. But in the end, the best songwriters aim beyond a solid sense of the past, speaking with their own real voices of their own real lives in the here and now. That aim has little to do with forms or styles or instrumentation -- those things will always be up for grabs.

By Sarah Vowell

Revival by Gillian Welch (Almo Sounds)
Sackcloth 'n' Ashes by Sixteen Horsepower (

 
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