They’re mustering in Tamworth this week as the country music festival kicks off soon. Which is nice. Some people think that’s the best Australian country music has to offer. Which is … nice. Some of us may beg to differ.
Luckily, apart from those who lean more to the “this is folk, not country” line, there is no such argument about this album which is about to become legal in all 50 states – though it’s been drinking and voting in Australia for several years now. But it would be interesting to see, 21 years on, whether arguments are still being made for it being not dark enough.
In any case, Wind Back Wednesday lightens the burden a little as Gillian Welch – the woman herself and the duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – make for a journey of the body, soul and more.
Soul Journey (Acony/Shock)
T0 SOME EYES, Time (The Revelator), Gillian Welch’s last album of stark cuttings from a wracked Appalachian outpost, was like a scorched earth policy, a burning-the-bridges-we’re-not going-back-there announcement. When it came to minimalist country/folk/white blues, over three albums Welch and musical partner/producer David Rawlings had not only pretty much said it all, but said it better than we’d heard for a decade or three. And really how much more bleakness could a woman canvas?
Maybe even Welch believed, as she says on her new album, that “I’ve been in the lowlands too long.” Soul Journey’s cover is an almost light-hearted collection of child-like drawings on an aqua background; there’s a little more obvious sense of humour (albeit wry) in No One Knows My Name and Look At Miss Ohio; and there’s a proper drum/bass/guitar band backing her on Wrecking Ball, a Dylan/Rolling Stones-like country/rock number.
But if you thought Soul Journey was Welch going uptown you’d be wrong. On several tracks even Rawlings has been stripped back so that we have only her time-frozen voice and carefully picked guitar. This brings her interpretations of the standards Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor and I Had A Real Good Mother even closer to the spiritual if not devotional, and allows her own One Little Song to float ever so delicately like a dying butterfly.
With its absence noted then it’s almost a treat when we do get Rawlings in harmony with Welch. They work so seamlessly, whether in the slow-burning Wayside/Back In Time that shimmers with a subtle organ and violin interplay, the soaring chorus of Lowlands or the neo-Stanley Brothers No One Knows My Name. And even when he’s not singing you can see Rawlings’ hand all over the (overlong) blues grind of One Monkey.
Welch may have lightened the burden a fraction on Soul Journey, moved it a step or two away from the yawning loss that was at the centre of the three previous albums. There isn’t the devastating effect of Hell Among The Yearlings for example - and I miss that. But Soul Journey has a personality that persists and more than a couple of gems.