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Gillian Welch

BOOTS No. 1 (Acony)

This is a foundation document, verging on Rosetta Stone status, for understanding what would come next in a good swathe of contemporary – as distinct from “modern” - music. Americana, which now has its own awards, its own category at the major awards, a history and a generation of fans who assume it’s always been there, can be traced to this.

If that sounds grandiose, which in truth it is a bit of course, it is not without solid grounds. Listen to Boots No. 1 and it will be something like turning on the rear window wiper after a downpour: clarity on where you’ve been and what you saw.

You don’t often get to see exactly when a movement begins, certainly not at the time, but even in retrospect despite what folks like me who talk loudly in restaurants like to claim when (re)writing history. That’s usually because movements, trends, genres, don’t arrive intact and don’t arrive in one spot.

You want to argue where punk started? Do you look at the New York Dolls in the early 1970s, or the Dolls being seen in the UK a couple of years later? Do you go further back to the Stooges and their jazz-nihilism or the Monks and their simple brutalism? Do you focus on London and ignore the Ramones et al in New York, Devo in Akron or the Saints in Brisbane? Can you do it without incorporating all of them?

The same exercise can be had for rock’n’roll (Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Rockin 88? Big Mama Thornton or jukejoint blues?), metal (Zeppelin or Sabbath? Iron Butterfly or the Kinks?), hip hop (Jamaican toasting or Kool Herc, Kraftwerk or disco?) or whatever it is you call that genre that features stubbly ex surfers, melodies born of the third bong and wet lettuce songs that sound “meaningful”.

Successful genres have many fathers, and mothers; even failed ones still rustle up a lot of siblings. There is almost never one source or one answer but a coming together.

By 1996, when Gillian Welch (New York-born, California-raised, Boston-educated and – it mattered – adopted), and Dave Rawlings (Rhode Island-raised, Boston-educated and – it mattered – a genius player) came to make Revival, their first album, in a new home town of Nashville, Tennessee, a return to a rootsier style of music had begun.

Uncle Tupelo, from which would spring Wilco, had released several albums, broken up in ’94 and left behind at least one album title, No Depression, which would live on as a genre magazine for those who would cite the likes of Gram Parsons, Gene Clark and Mike Nesmith as foundation stones of country rock. The Jayhawks, who merged CS&N harmonies with the fuller-bodied sound of some of those same country rock names, had existed for a decade and already made two albums now considered classics, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass, for a major label.

There was also Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin, Nanci Griffith and Drive By Truckers, Alison Krauss and Union Station, playing songs that were folkier or more bluegrass, old school country rather than big hat country, quieter and simpler, but also synthesising decades of rock within a century of country/folk.

However, Revival was starker and clearer, not as bare in sound as its successor, Hell Among The Yearlings – the album that really settled the Gillian Welch sound - but certainly more direct in its presentation, in keeping with its storytelling. And such stories. Mining families and cheap addictions, desperate straits and hopes on “God’s highway”, death a constant and dreams modest to the point of insignificance. They were stories generations old but also utterly “now” still in the small towns that had once survived if not always thrived but now were barren.

Consider the reams written post-presidential election about the religious, righteous, wracked-with-despair and fearful working class whites who bought the Trump hokum: they’re some of the people you find in these songs, and those to come in later Welch albums.

Given the way folk and country musicians who have chosen to stay on the fringes built a scene essentially on the Gillian Welch aesthetic, and the way elements of her tone and her storytelling infiltrated the centre of popular country and folk too – including the revival of bluegrass and mountain gospel that came with her co-curation of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack - what makes Boots No. 1 so fascinating is how it shows the varied, inconsistent and educative steps taken to get there. Americana didn’t arrive without “dialogue”, between artists but also within artists.

Traditional sounds vs an even older but less easy on modern ears tone? Voice and guitars vs thickening with a rhythm section? Electric guitar for colour vs finger-picked acoustic for rawness? Extra voices occasionally vs the austerity of two, or even two-as-one? Those aesthetic and musical decisions are scattered across Boots No. 1.

It may sound like minutiae but those back and forth moves were the way to the sound we now recognise as standard for what Rawlings called “the two-headed beast we call Gillian Welch”: a description which acknowledges the symbiosis of the duo in much of the writing, all of the tone/sound, the combination of their voices, and the centrality of his guitar playing alongside her voice. All of these would be even clearer when they flipped the lead voice, but not the core, for the albums they would later make as the Dave Rawlings Machine.

Defining a sound can be about what you choose not to do as much as what you choose to do. Here you can find an unlikely rockabilly moment in 455 Rocket, with the uptempo shakin’ and rattlin’ powered by Elvis alumni Jim Keltner on drums and producer T Bone Burnett on piano and percussion, and then Dry Town’s Johnny Cash-rhythm (with upright bass added to the drums this time) and perkiness. Neither worked for the album, though they were later covered by other artists, in tone or sound as the paring of influences continued apace.

Similarly, the alternate mix of Paper Wings, a song which on Revival still sounds like a delicate 1950s recording, has a greater presence for the pedal steel of John R Hughey that is undoubtedly attractive but pushes the song into the more conventional territory that Welch, Rawlings and Burnett were drifting away from.

However, the alternate take of the original album’s opening song, and Welch’s best known song at that point, Orphan Girl, show a slightly less embroidered version than what which would be released, the voices not as entwined. Being stark wasn’t always the final word.

Across two discs, unfussed by any need to show “genius” as something other than the result of work, mistakes, and more work, Boots No. 1 reveals but also satisfies, deepens your knowledge and also clarifies. Start here and there’s a cracking journey ahead.

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