Is Brilliant Appropriation a Contradiction? On Gillian Welch and Pastiche
The historical references the virtuosic instrumental work, and the stunning close harmonies all took intelligence and skill to master, but that doesn't mean that Time (The Revelator) should be beyond critique.
Can Welche's Music and Alt.country Exist Without Pastiche?
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.
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"Welch, Gillian. "April the 14th Part I." Time (The Revelator). Acony, 2001. CD.
"---. "Elvis Presley Blues." Time (The Revelator) . Acony, 2001. CD.
"---. "Everything is Free." Time (The Revelator) . Acony, 2001. CD.
"---. "I Dream a Highway." Time (The Revelator) . Acony, 2001. CD.
---. "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll." Time (The Revelator) . Acony, 2001. CD.
---. "My First Lover." Time (The Revelator) . Acony, 2001. CD.
---. "Revelator." Time (The Revelator) . Acony, 2001. CD.
---. "Ruination Day Part 2." Time (The Revelator) . Acony, 2001. CD.
---. Time (The Revelator) . Acony, 2001. CD.
Wilson, Carl. "The Trouble With Indie Rock." Slate. N.p. 18 Oct. 2007. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.
Joshua Friedberg is a recent graduate of Northeastern Illinois University's Master's program in English, Literature and Culture and also a singer, songwriter, and sometime radio DJ.