Alt.country music, or alternative country, can get a bad rap. It’s full of appropriation, hipster irony, and the pretense that upper-middle-class liberal arts majors can determine what “real” country music is. It arose largely in reaction to the ‘90s mainstream country boom of megastars like Garth Brooks. However, as Nadine Hubbs in Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (University of California Press, 2014) and other authors have pointed out, the name “alternative country” is unfortunate because it implies that country music before the ‘90s was never a commercial product, which simply isn’t true.
Singer-songwriter Gillian Welch both does and does not fit within the criticisms of alt.country. If anything, her 2001 album, Time (The Revelator), is unique because it moves beyond the scene’s conventions and prominent attributes. Yes, she’s the daughter of film and television composers—not the “hillbilly” that her songs portray her to be—but there’s something smart about how she moves between styles, genres, and time periods in the album’s lyrics and music. Still, she seems to ignore her class position in relation to the music that she appropriates, which is troubling. The interplay between sharp intelligence and appropriation in her music suggests that, contrary to the views of many, one’s problematic politics have nothing to do with a lack of intelligence. Instead, appropriation is about power, and it is indeed possible to be both smart and appropriative at the same time.
Why is this an issue? Oftentimes these days, many denigrate the disagreeable views of others as lacking intelligence. But there’s a difference between ignorance and a dearth of intelligence. As many activists have argued, cultural appropriation is different from cultural exchange because it involves people with power taking from marginalized cultures, not the other way around. Therefore, appropriation from those privileged by race, class, gender, and so forth can indeed be rationalized in intelligent ways, even as the ideas are flawed and the consequences horrific.
Time (The Revelator), however, combines fiercely intelligent songwriting, playing, singing, and production with a problematic blurring of boundaries between different eras and social classes. Country music has often been defined as having a working-class identity, but Welch’s “tiny rock songs”, which fascinatingly incorporate older country and bluegrass influences, are created neither by working-class people nor in a working-class context. But the album can appear to transcend its release date in the new millennium with an ostensibly timeless feel. This does not mean, however, that this appearance should not be rigorously interrogated.
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“Queen of fakes and imitators? / Time’s the revelator”
—Gillian Welch, “Revelator”
In the last couple of decades, the ‘90s emergence of the alternative country music scene has gathered scholarly attention for its politics of commercialism, class, and gender that separated it from the mainstream country music heard widely across the US. Alt.country, as it’s sometimes called, is often described as oppositional, liberal, and anti-corporate. However, scholars like Barbara Ching and Pamela Fox illuminate the unusually male-dominated and regressive politics of alt.country. Still, some of the most acclaimed artists in alt.country are women, including Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, and Gillian Welch. Welch’s work specifically exemplifies classed issues of appropriation and postmodern pastiche, and Time (The Revelator), was widely hailed for its mix of older and more contemporary styles.
The album’s pastiche functions as a middle and upper class trait in this context, and it’s used in very smart ways. If we extend this argument to and beyond alt.country, this implies that contemporary “alternative” cultures are often of the dominant, rather than a resistant and truly alternative, culture. The pastiche in Time (The Revelator) indicates a simultaneous reverence for and playfulness with earlier working class traditions, filled with class appropriation and what an ethnomusicologist calls “bourgeois ease: the freedom to cultivate, curate, dabble in, and reconfigure the alternatives offered up in the commodity form by modern American culture”. Still, the album is exceptionally well written, played, and constructed, which suggests in turn that the blurred boundaries between styles, genres, and eras in the music are also highly intelligent—and that appropriation has no correlation with intelligence. The references to different historical events, the virtuosic instrumental work, and the stunning close harmonies all took intelligence and skill to master, but that does not mean that this music should be beyond critique.
The narrative alt.country has told about itself portrays a movement resisting the mainstream country music boom of the ‘90s, which brought unprecedented revenue and pop music influence to country. According to this story, the group Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 album, No Depression, combined older country styles with a punk rock-inspired do-it-yourself (DIY) aesthetic. With the emergence of the Internet, Uncle Tupelo fans gathered and formed a No Depression listserv group on AOL that became a key site for the emergence of alt.country. A magazine called No Depression was founded to chronicle developments in the music and surrounding culture and later called itself “the alternative country (whatever that is) bimonthly” (qtd. Aaron A. Fox 164), signaling the amorphous boundaries of the genre into the 2000s.
Various scholars complicate this narrative. In her textbook on country music history, Jocelyn R. Neal identifies factors that made alt.country unique compared to earlier so-called roots music movements, including the presence of “[o]utsiders with little connection or investment in the country genre latch[ing] onto early styles of country music as representing an idealized anticommercial roots music”. Neal’s summary recognizes the unequal class politics in alt.country, with “[o]utsiders” representing artists who Aaron A. Fox calls out for forms of class “minstrelsy”, including Gillian Welch, which I will elaborate on later (“‘Alternative’ To What?” 182-83). Neal also includes a list of characteristics of alt.country’s sound and ideology, including “an attitude that disavowed the contemporary music industry” (409-10).
In addition, Diane Pecknold’s essay, “Selling Out or Buying In?: Alt.Country’s Cultural Politics of Commercialism”, rigorously interrogates the conventional narrative of alt.country’s ascent, arguing that what distinguished alt.country in the ‘90s from earlier fusions of country and punk and from earlier roots music movements “was not primarily one of sound or technology, or even of audience activity, but rather one of business infrastructure”. These included new record labels, retail networks, the Americana radio format, and the Gavin Report Americana chart (32-35), so alt.country was a capitalist enterprise from the beginning tied to, not disconnected from, the marketplace. In countering the logic of the conventional narrative of alt.country’s history, Pecknold asserts, “The timing of its emergence as a sustainable and recognizable genre indicates that alt.country fulfills the institutional needs of the industry as much as the desires of the new audience—that it is as much a marketing category as a cultural movement” (46), a crucial comment on a genre which prefers to describe itself as anti-corporate.
Also significant is alt.country’s relationship to constructed ideas of tradition, which can be characterized as pastiche, as used by theorist Fredric Jameson. Jameson writes in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that postmodern pastiche is likened to “what the architecture historians call ‘historicism,’ namely, the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion, and in general what Henri Lefebvre has called the increasing primacy of the ‘neo’” (18). This quotation signals that in the postmodern era, “random” pastiche adds historical elements to contemporary texts while removing their original contextualized meaning.
Welch’s Time (The Revelator) can help listeners apply some of the above ideas to an album that has been widely acclaimed as an exemplary alt.country text. Pamela Fox argues, “At most, her work functions as an ironic illustration of Raymond Williams’ [sic] argument that notions of tradition always point to ideological conditions in the present” (138). Such conditions include the alt.country scene’s yearning for an older, more “authentic” style that would serve its needs as a marker of hip, capitalist culture.
Despite some initial acclaim, Welche’s album fared best critically on “best of the decade” lists, landing in the top ten on lists by American Songwriter, Irish Times, Rock’s Back Pages, and Paste (“Acclaimed Music”), as well as PopMatters (PopMatters Staff). Fox notes that the album’s ambitious focus on time suggests “that the album functions as a knowing meditation on musical history” in ways that signal pastiche: “The past that is refashioned here has its familiar, if disquieting, moments of jarring dissonance—Steve Miller lyrics jostle up against references to Elvis, John Henry, and Abraham Lincoln to be posed against a present of cell phones and MP3s” (Pamela Fox 139).
The most obvious form of compressing time periods is in “April the 14th Part I” and the corresponding “Ruination Day Part 2”, in which Welch juxtaposes historical events that happened on 14 April—the Titanic sinking in 1912, the Dust Bowl outbreak in 1935, and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865—against a contemporary rock show. In tandem, various reviewers, including the All Music Guide mention the rock influence on these acoustic tracks, as Welch and her collaborator, David Rawlings, conceived these songs as “tiny rock songs”: “In our heads, we went electric without changing instruments,” said Welch (qtd. Johnson). As the review notes, the most obvious examples of these references are “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll” and “Elvis Presley Blues”, which sound like old-time country and folk songs on acoustic instruments with close bluegrass vocal harmonies and lyrics all about rock music and musicians. This juxtaposition of rock themes with “old-time” styles is not only inventive; it is brilliant, once again suggesting that brilliant appropriation is very possible.
The lyrical and musical themes of the album include time, geography, movement, death, technology, rural rusticity and poverty, tradition, religion, identity confusion and rootlessness, rock music, personal and historical milestones, myth, and D.I.Y. art. Regarding the latter, this album, Welch’s third, was the first written and played entirely by Welch and Rawlings and produced by Rawlings, and it was released on their own label, Acony (Pamela Fox 139). This is clearly Welch and Rawlings’s vision for her overall project that she calls “American Primitive” (qtd. 136), and Fox notes Welch’s preference for older technology and older styles such as “1920s mountain ballads, mid-1950s bluegrass, [and] 1930s gospel” (137).
The title “American Primitive”, possibly taken from poet Mary Oliver, connotes a condescending fetishizing of a tradition to which Welch ostensibly does not belong, and Aaron A. Fox applies Eric Lott’s racial paradigm of blackface minstrelsy to class in alt.country when he writes,
“New heights of problematic minstrelsy were reached when Gillian Welch, the daughter of successful television and film composers, and a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, appeared on the cover of her debut album [Revival] in a plain cotton dress with a grim expression that evokes a famous Dorothea Lange Depression-era photograph.” (183) Similarly, Richard A. Peterson and Bruce A. Beal argue, “With their words, many alt.country artists seem to be groping back into the past to find someone else’s history” (242). While one might argue that with more rock influences on Time (The Revelator), Welch has foregone such appropriation, sounds of older “mountain ballads,” “bluegrass,” and “gospel” in the form are present and made more conspicuous by Welch’s background.
The songs are evenly divided into strophic—all-verse—and verse-chorus forms. The strophic form dominated early recorded country music, according to Neal, so in that sense, Welch is evoking earlier, “traditional” forms that are tied directly to the history of a particular country tradition that privileges early folk and string band sounds. The first song, “Revelator”, highlights pastiche in that it sounds like a contemporary rock song delivered in old-time instrumentation and bluegrass-style harmonies, referencing contemporary California and an older rural economy, in strophic form. The song is all about time, and the song and album’s view of time involves blurring boundaries between eras in the form of pastiche. This motif occurs in the plentitude of words on the album like “time”, “tonight”, “morning”, “Sunday”, “spring”, “summer”, and the infinitive “to date”, and it speaks to the album’s obsession with mixing “retro” and contemporary elements.
One of the most compelling moments on the album is on “Revelator”, when Welch and Rawlings’s voices slow down and crescendo in harmony on the words, “[A]nd move the fader”, as if to simulate the technology of a studio fader altering the volume of the recording. As chilling as this moment is, it speaks to their anti-technology stance evident on “Everything is Free”: Welch and Rawlings are so “real” that they can simulate studio technology without actually needing to use it here (though “April the 14th Part I” and other songs do fade out at the end). Still, the moment is powerful, moving, and smartly conceived.