Lucinda & Gillian, Authentic Nashville Music
How Lucinda William and Gillian Welch created truly personal versions of classic American music.
Lucinda Williams owned Nashville in the ‘90s, and was around often enough to show how it’s done when you are at the top of your game. Ultimately, it must have gotten too confining, so she split for California. Gillian Welch came up during that time, and now, she’s the new woman in charge.
I recently visited the town during the Americana Music Festival, a catchall category that usually means vintage clothes and a somewhat desperate search for a more authentic America, one that might never have existed. You take the good with the bad, though, and while there is both, you can probably guess which way it’s tilted.
I am, like Woody Allen, a reluctant member of any club that would have me, but I must admit a blindfold test would probably locate me somewhere on that tattered map. A few years ago it went under the name “Alt Country,” an even poorer moniker that coughed up favorites like Wilco and Ryan Adams. I’m ambivalent, as usual, as I think the whole branding exercise has more to do with marketing than music. It also provides a checklist for fame seekers who do everything by the book to get to the top of the heap.
Lucinda came first, doing a couple recordings in the late ‘70s that showed her to be a gifted interpreter of earlier blues styles. She was without a label for a while after that and went unrecorded for a few years. When she re-emerged in the late ‘80s, things had changed. She was now a class A writer leading a band that was greasier than a bacon pan. Her producer, multi-instrumentalist Gurf Morlix, gave the songs shape without losing any of their lopsided beauty.
The daughter of Arkansas poetry professor Miller Williams, (later the Poet Laureate during the Clinton administration) she grew up between two worlds, academia and the Deep South of Hank Williams and Maybelle Carter. She managed to balance the literate and the down home, creating songs full of lust and humor that had an aching melancholy. She didn’t waste words or, for that matter, a lot of chords to make her point. Her drawl was thicker than a slice of country ham and she proudly deployed it.
One of the songs on her self-titled comeback became a hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter. Passionate Kisses. In the Lucinda version, it lives up to its title. Carpenter tamed it and homogenized it, making it palatable for mainstream country, but she put Lucinda on the road to greater recognition and financial stability.
Williams followed that (ever so slowly, this was a woman who would not be rushed) with another great collection, Sweet Old World. The title song alone is worth the price of admission and if you don’t own this record, drop what you’re doing and get it (we endorse the now outmoded practice of paying for music). It’s what you call essential. But she had an even greater masterpiece in her, called Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. It is very hard to make a great record, one where every track rings true and seems a necessary part of an integral whole — this one qualifies. The title song, an exercise in sensual memory, is a vividly detailed childhood story. It captures a moment in summer when the world comes together in a most perfect way; you can almost hear the scrunch of the wheels.
I got to sing the under harmony on Sweet Old World with Lucinda back in the nineties. I thought I’d died and went to heaven. Our circles overlapped somewhat and I got to know her just a little. She was in a constant state of personal flux then and living her songs. Writing was a painful process, one she described for The New York Times Magazine as involving a lot of tears. Few artists go there, but even fewer come back with songs that are worth every salty drop.
When Gillian Welch and her somewhat unheralded life partner, David Rawlings, made their debut, the ‘90s and all the insurgent hooplah were starting to be a thing. They immediately went to the front of the class. Their record was produced by the ubiquitous T-Bone Burnett, (you may remember that name from the first BoDeans record) and it was nothing if not understated. With a vibe closer to Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, it was like a piece of Shaker furniture, plain, made from the humblest materials and sturdy enough to take the weight.
There was was some grumbling about a couple of California-born Berkley grads making Appalachian mountain music with literary ambitions. But doing something well is all that matters, and these two had their act together. Singing close like siblings, evoking both The Everly and Louvin Brothers, it was hard to believe they weren’t identical twins. They wove their instruments together in a close to telepathic manner and opted for the unplugged technique of Bluegrass bands. It’s hard to believe there once was a time when acoustic guitars weren’t plugged in. Gillian and David understood that’s no way to treat a beautiful instrument and then proceeded to set technology back a few wayward steps.
Look at Miss Ohio, performed on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, shows what they do so well. Watching it, there is no doubt we are in the present day. But when I close my eyes, I’m not so sure. Gilian’s voice is so timeless, it would work in 1932 and 2014 — the important thing in singing is to never lie, not to the audience or yourself. Everybody senses when you don’t believe it, and it cheapens the experience. This performance of this lovely song is anything but.
So I return, once again, to the town where I spent a very interesting chunk of the ‘90s with my family. It’s changed a lot since then, but some things are still recognizable. Music Row is still chasing dollars with acts that want so desperately to be “country,” a term that now seems to mean you wear your baseball hat backwards and drive a pickup. It’s identity music, just as insecure as any other in its announcements of authenticity. You want to be authentic? Be yourself, like Lucinda or Gillian and David. Why is that so damn rare?