dreaming a highway backI've been listening to Gillian Welch ever since the release of her first album, Revival. I used to love that album with an unreasonable intensity, but lately I've lost interest in it; the songs, and the voice, now seem to present an imitation, a singer trying to sound like something she admires. I have, for whatever reason, a sense of some missing thing behind a faithfully executed gesture.
But the astonishing thing about Welch is how much she has grown into the "Appalachian high-lonesome" music that she loves, and that I love along with her. The album playing over and over again on my IPod (thanks, guys) is her very remarkable Time (The Revelator), a collection of music so quietly and perfectly done that each song seems to be inexhaustible; the song playing over and over on my IPod, as I fall asleep in an army bunk thousands of miles away from home, is "I Dream A Highway," a song plainly written by someone who understands what it feels like to sleep in a strange bed thousands of miles from home. I almost posted a link to the lyrics, here, but I won't, and I hope you won't go google them. Listen first.
On the same album, "Elvis Presley Blues" pulls together two potent American icons in a deeply resonant way: Elvis being "all alone in a long decline / Thinking how happy John Henry was when he fell down and died." Welch very neatly captures the sensation of mixing a sadness over something with a love for that something, a perfect bittersweet embrace of loss. The song is a remarkable accomplishment, and it's also a remarkable accomplishment that circles back to the place she started; it references Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, points to the traditions in which she wishes to walk, and avoids merely imitating any of them. Welch simultaneously reaches back to a cherished past and moves beyond it. And, I mean, wow.
About that cherished past: The same song displays a terrific consciousness of its subject, and I'm inclined to speculate that Welch has not only read Peter Guralnick's gorgeous two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, but has also spent some time watching footage of the young Elvis's live performances:
How he took it all, the black and whiteI also love the image, earlier in the song, of Elvis as "Just a country boy/who combed his hair/Put on a shirt his mother made/And he went on the air." A storyteller's respect for her story is always apparent, and these songs are an endless pleasure. Which is much appreciated, these days.
Grabbing one in the other hand and he held on tight
And he shook it like a hurricane
And he shook it like to make it break
And he shook it like a holy roller, baby
With his soul at stake, with his soul at stake