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.
Can Welche’s Music and Alt.country Exist Without Pastiche?
In “My First Lover”, pastiche figures in with the quotation from “that old Steve Miller song”, “Quicksilver Girl”, and the mention of “a surfer party with the whiskey poured” has a middle-class connotation: according to music historians Reebee Garofalo and Steve Waksman, in the early ’60s, surfing culture and music had a distinct white middle-class attachment, as surfing and fast cars were associated with leisure activities that working-class communities could not afford.
Whiskey may be ubiquitous in country lyrics — from Tex Ritter’s “Rye Whiskey” in the ’40s to Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss’s “Whiskey Lullaby” in the new millennium — but here it’s a symbol of classic rock decadence, which fits with the Steve Miller quotation, and again marks a blurring of eras in terms of pastiche. Still, though the connections drawn between eras may seem jarring, these musical and lyrical moves are skillfully crafted and intelligent, suggesting that the cultural dabbling and “bourgeois ease” that Aaron A. Fox notes, while problematic, contain utopian possibilities for thinking differently about history, emphasizing continuities between different periods. Still, of course, Welch’s pastiche removes context as crucial to understanding her references, which is also problematic, but what she loses in historical specificity, she gains in the sense of transcendent beauty that shimmers across this album.
That said, pastiche also involves blurring boundaries between symbols of different social classes as well as eras. In “Red Clay Halo”, the recurring image of red clay dirt, symbolic of rural “country” life, amplifies the lyrics about not being from the city and as a working class, rustic motif. The verse-chorus form with the clever, catchy chorus makes it sound like it could make a mainstream country hit with different, electric instrumentation:
But when I pass through the pearly gates
My gown be gold instead
Or just a red clay robe with red clay wings
And a red clay halo for my head?
This track, more than others, highlights what Pamela Fox indicates about “[h]er work as a whole”: it “enacts a disquieting version of what Eric Schlocket calls ‘class transvestism'” (142). This quality is made more “disquieting” by “her ease at stepping into this reconstructed world” (142), which is equivalent to Aaron A. Fox’s quotation about “bourgeois ease” cited earlier for the alt.country scene. However, if this music is smart, as the repetition of the red clay motif in an otherworldly context suggests, we can also infer that Welch knows what she is doing in very intelligent but calculating ways.
References of the ’50s abound on “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll” and “Elvis Presley Blues”, with rock ‘n’ roll once again being constructed as a source of religion and salvation: “And [Presley] shook it like a holy roller, baby, with his soul at stake”. These references are contrasted with the contemporary focus on MP3 technology on Welch’s lament, “Everything is Free” – she’s clearly against the emerging technology. This song connects with the theme of technology in “Revelator” where their voices simulate studio faders — they don’t want technological help. Welch’s preference for older technology with lots of distortion (Pamela Fox 137) fits into this, too, and Aaron A. Fox provides a necessary reminder with a personal anecdote about how an older country musician schooled an alt.country-loving DJ who was fetishizing older technology, specifically “the vintage studio equipment used by Bob Wills in the 1940s”: “if Bob Wills were alive he would prefer modern digital sound” (171).
The album’s 15-minute closer, “I Dream a Highway”, is a lullaby in verse-chorus form full of longing and including references to alt.country icons Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, and Emmylou Harris. It has a kind of timelessness as well as rootlessness in it, with lyrics reflecting on the search for identity: “Now, you be Emmylou and I’ll be Gram/ I send a letter, don’t know who I am”. So, the album blurs boundaries in terms of identity, class, time period, and genre as well as geography, with its mentions of Memphis, Hollywood, the Jordan River, and other locations. These are all forms of pastiche, removing the context from the original references and transferring them to a contemporary musical scene. As problematic as this blurring of boundaries is from a class standpoint, the album is also a stunning piece of contemporary music.
Can Welch’s music, and alt.country as a whole, exist without pastiche? Pamela Fox praises the less well-known group Freakwater for their more uneasy blend of influences of multiple eras: their work sounds less like timeless, blurred pastiche and is in fact bolstered by the group’s leaders’ working class backgrounds. Additionally, Trent Hill’s essay, “Why Isn’t Country Music ‘Youth’ Culture?” suggests, against the grain of most current scholars, that issues of class are discussed rather than minimized in alt.country discourses, citing articles in No Depression (Rock Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Culture, Duke University Press, 2002). Nonetheless, the dominant tropes of alt.country fit with Aaron A. Fox’s description: “Hyper-modern, technologically sophisticated, well-capitalized, urban, cosmopolitan, well-educated deployments of archaic, low-tech, shoestring, rural, and ignorant images and expressive styles have been definitive features of alternative country…” (182-83).
Finally, the history of alt.country suggests that nominal alternative cultures actually belong in conjunction with, and may not always exist in opposition to, the dominant culture. What gets labeled as “alternative” music often functions for specific hegemonic class interests. Garofalo and Waksman note how, in the ’60s, the hippie counterculture was largely composed of whites looking for alternatives to middle class life. Carl Wilson noted in 2007 how alternative/indie rock is often seen as the music of college-educated elites. Aaron A. Fox again puts it best when he concludes his essay, “‘Alternative’ to What?” with a reorienting of the title question: “[T]he question ‘”alternative” to what?’ cannot be answered by listing off styles, genres, institutions, or practices, and perhaps might best be rephrased as ‘alternative to — and for — whom?'” (188). The answer to that question, as evidenced by Time (The Revelator) and other alt.country texts, is that alt.country is a middle and upper class version of an older working class tradition, and may in fact function as an alternative to that tradition because of the positionality of much of its artists and audiences. Barbara Ching and Pamela Fox even suggest that alt.country’s “own disturbingly selective history [is] straighter, narrower, and whiter than that of Music Row” (17), referring to the center of the mainstream country music business in Nashville, and thus, it may not be much of an alternative.
Nonetheless, alternative or not, Time (The Revelator) is a brilliant album that deserves both acclaim for its music and critique for its appropriation. As suggested earlier, a better, actually alternative way for this album to be socio-politically — not just musically — effective would be for Welch to focus more on the historical specificity of her references, creating some songs that still juxtapose different time periods together, while creating others that sound more fittingly contemporary. I don’t know how Welch would do that, as she has used electric instrumentation on other albums, but perhaps stressing both the continuities and the differences between the present and the past would create a smart, but less problematic work.