Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
For those familiar with Gillian Welch’s music, it is no stretch to call her music some of the best country music to come out of Nashville in the last fifty years. For those who are not quite as familiar with Welch, you might be surprised to see where she has shown up: all over the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, background vocals on the newest Decemberists albums, and even being covered by Miranda Lambert. Welch has put out five solo albums and worked her way to the peak of the country music food chain, gathering praise from mainstream and alt-country crowds alike.
Welch’s discography paints a picture of an American landscape not beyond the idylls of Faulkner, O’Connor, and Whitman. It is a sepia-tinted landscape seen through the windshield of an old Ford passing through on the highway. Her songs are both deeply personal and comprehensive, with stories of poverty, addiction, tragedy, tradition, and faith. All of it set beautifully to the ambling, Willie Nelson-esque guitar of the great David Rawlings, her longtime musical collaborator. Welch’s seven-album career is a true tribute to the truest American roots.
There is no indication that Gillian Welch is in any way a devout Christian or has any deeply held spirituality to speak of, but her music speaks overtly to the soul in a way few (even Christians) do. This is because Welch is an American storyteller and as with every great storyteller, she refuses to neglect stories that need to be told. For Welch, the spiritual life is as real to the American psyche as is poverty, loneliness, and love. Songs like “Tennessee” and “Six White Horses” on her newest album tell lovely, ambling, and sometimes-heartbreaking stories (“Hard Times” makes me cry every time I hear it) of spiritual confusion and, well, hard times. In “Tennessee,” in one of the most humanizing pictures of “backslidden” Christianity ever put to music, Welch declares:
“Even so I tried to be a good girl / It’s only what I want that makes me weak / I had no desire to be a child of sin / But then you went and pressed your whiskers to my cheek”
While on earlier albums, characters find comfort from their loneliness in friendship of Jesus. Out of desperation, pain, and faith of the character in “No One Knows My Name” she sings:
“Ain’t one soul in the whole world knows my name / But I’ll see it by and by cause it’s written up in the sky / Ain’t one soul in the whole world knows my name”
Again, here is another song that I have ever-frequently wept to. So what is it about Welch’s songs and spirituality that are so compelling and, at times, heartbreaking? It’s the pure truth and humanism of the music that move me over and over again. It isn’t that Welch is overtly preaching to me; she doesn’t have to! When Welch sings about the lonely kid finding his only friend in the by and by, I know that because that has been me. When I have felt like an outsider and my only friend was Jesus himself, Welch’s words ring truer than most CCM does. Along with that wonderful identification, I get caught up in the mystical American spirit, something that is hard to define but easy to spot. It is as much old-time religion as it is geography, legend, music, and traveling. When these things are combined using the beautiful medium of Americana music and a refusal to deny the spiritual power that has existed in this country since its founding, the result is always a powerful reminder of where I come from and who I am.
Yet I am afraid we are all in danger of completely forgetting our spiritual roots and painting over the beautiful theological landscape of common folk with a hasty airbrushing of secular consumerism. Now, while I am no “keep ‘Christ’ in Christmas” culture warrior, sometimes I do feel like Jeremiah lamenting over Jerusalem (that’s from the Bible…) when I consider the cultural amnesia we all seem to be in.
Still, I am thankful for those outside of Christendom who acknowledge the beauty of the gospel, even as a spectator. Gillian Welch and those like her are not afraid to wade into the waters of sin, redemption, and faith. And that is simply because Americans believe this stuff and Gillian Welch is a faithful storyteller.