Californian country-folk belle lets the sunshine through on excellent fourth album

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The Bluegrass Angel

Gillian Welch, with her hard ‘g’, is indisputably a Good Thing. Tall and gawky, decidedly non-photogenic, Gillian gives hope to all of us who contend that talent should triumph over Nu-Nashville cuteness. No less than the revered Ralph Stanley, Gillian?along with paramour/accomplice David Rawlings?deserved the newgrass shots-in-the-arm that were O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Down From The Mountain.

I saw Gill’n’Dave just when they were setting off on their scholarly alt.bluegrass path in early 1997. They were a match made in heaven, Dave’s soft tenor exquisitely shadowing Gillian’s stark, vibrato-less alto as their guitars?a 1935 Epiphone for him, a big, reddish-brown Guild for her?intertwined. Backstage they struck me as two of the most decent, honourable?and super-talented?musicians I’ve ever encountered. More power to their ascetic Appalachian schtick, said I.

Of course, back then there were mutterings about the provenance of these blue-ridge ballads of orphans and Walker Evans hillbillies. Wasn’t Gillian Johnny Carson’s daughter or something? Authenticist baloney. If music had to be sociologically correct we’d never have had Tom Waits, Steely Dan, Prince and innumerable others. Rock’s biggest pitfall is the delusion it should be a transparent medium for a singer’s ‘identity’ (whatever that is). Which is why musicians conflate their fame with their self-intoxication and fuck up so badly.

Gillian Welch doesn’t pretend she’s some Alabama miner’s daughter. She just loves this music, studies and inhabits it, revives it in the most caring and compelling way. How great those first two Almo records were: is there a better alt. country song than “One More Dollar” (from Revival)? Did AP Carter ever write a more moving ballad than “One Morning” (Hell Among The Yearlings)?

Which was why I felt the teensiest bit let down by Gillian’s post-Almo Time (The Revelator). To me it felt like Gill’n’Dave were striving to move beyond their old-timey scholarship?commendable in itself?and not quite making it. Gill’s front-parlour DIY banjo playing was nice but the songs simply weren’t special enough. Not as special, at any rate, as “Orphan Girl”, “Pass You By”, “My Morphine”.

Which is why it gives me so much pleasure to report that Soul Journey is a highly satisfying bridge between the log-cabin museum pieces of Revival and Hell Among The Yearlings and a more rockin’, Basement Tapes-ish Americana. Of the 10 tracks, at least two (“No One Knows My Name”, “I Had A Real Good Mother And Father”) are dependably stoical acoustic statements of sorrow and orphanhood. “No One Knows” is Welch directly addressing the small matter of her own adoption. Along with “One Little Song” and “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor”, “I Had A Real Good Mother And Father” also gives us the previously unheard sound of Welch performing without Rawlings or anyone else?just the gal and her guitar, recorded at home in Nashville.

The flipside of Soul Journey is a clutch of songs (“Lowlands”, “Wrecking Ball”) that feature a soup of scrunched electric guitars, loping Richard Manuel drums, scraping Scarlet Rivera fiddle and muted Garth Hudson/Al Kooper clapboard-Baptist organ. The drumming on the album is by Welch and Rawlings themselves, and very Manuel-esque it is, too. Among the other players helping out: Son Volt bassist Jim Boquist, dobro wizard Greg Leisz, fiddler Ketch Secor and guitarist Mark Ambrose.

“Wrecking Ball”, which closes the album and has nowt to do with the Emmylou Harris song of the same name, is just terrific: a very Dylan-ish piece of reminiscence looking back on life as “a little Deadhead”, no less. Did Gillian “play bass under a pseudonym”? Did she meet a “lovesick daughter in the San Joaquin”? The song is possibly more autobiographical than “Miner’s Refrain” or “Caleb Meyer”, for what that is worth. Almost as good is the spare, thuddy “Lowlands”, which is more Neil than Bob, Harvest to “Wrecking Ball”‘s Basement Tapes/Rolling Thunder hybrid.

If Gill isn’t delving into her own past or channelling Depression-era orphans, you can usually find her running around with good-time boys and gals. The sauntering, dobro-licked “Look At Miss Ohio” and the blithe fatigue of “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor”?the album’s opening tracks?set this tone for Soul Journey.

Similarly occupying the middle ground between the family-bible bereavement of “I Had A Real Good Mother And Father” and the electric tie-dye sweep of “Wrecking Ball” are the can’t-go-home-again lament that is “Wayside/Back In Time” and the morose “One Monkey”?the latter the darkest patch on what Welch herself rightly regards as a fairly sunny soundscape. “I wish I were in Frisco with a brand new pair of shoes,” she sings wonderfully on “Wayside”, “[but] I’m sitting here in Nashville with Norman’s Nashville blues.” Whoever Norman is…

Soul Journey’s one unarguable masterpiece is the penultimate track “I Made A Lover’s Prayer”, possibly the most perfect thing that Gill’n’Dave have ever created. It’s so simple, so unadorned, so dreamily lovely that I can barely find the words to describe it. Some braided guitar lines, some words about a beloved boy, a puff or two on a harmonica?all combining to make a mood that’s almost divine. Otis Redding eat your heart out: Soul Journey would be worth buying for “I Made A Lover’s Prayer” alone.

Loose and laid-back, Soul Journey is a porchlight songbook of a record, a close-to-perfect soundtrack for a country summer. Get on board without further ado.