Hezekiah’s got the blues. Not only does the king of the Jews suffer, but so does the pharaoh and the Lord above. Heck, even the moon can’t find peace. In Kevin Welch’s fabulist retelling of the past, everybody and everything is tormented by its existence no matter one’s holiness, power, or inorganic composition. Like Aesop, Welch’s story has a moral but as this is a song (“Blue Lonesome”) he lets the music do the talking. Welch’s acoustic guitar slithers and snakes into a deep groove that allows his bandmates to whisper, wail and pound their solace into our souls. Life (or the lack of it) may suck, but not being here would be worse. In Welch’s song, the moon finds comfort by resting in the sea. The rest of us have each other (and music). Hallelujah!
Dust Devil is Welch’s first record in eight years. That’s not because he couldn’t find a record deal. The talented artist co-founded the Dead Reckoning label back in the 1990s and has released a dozen discs since then. His songs have been covered by such legends as Roger Miller, Solomon Burke, and Waylon Jennings. More recently, country’s Chris Stapleton had a number one hit with his version of Welch’s “Millionaire”. Welch’s reputation commands respect among singer-songwriter literati, folk, and country music fans, and Americana admirers.
This new record will only burnish his status. It contains eight new original story-song gems, a sweet cover of Bill Caswell’s classic ode to a tractor, “Sweet Allis Chalmers” and a sultry take on John Hadley’s “High Heel Shoes”). His band includes a number of top-notch instrumentalists, many of whom he has recorded with for decades including sideman Fats Kaplin on fiddle, pedal steel, button accordion, tenor banjo and mandolin, Harry Stinson on drums, and Glen Worf on upright and electric bass. Legendary studio musician Jim Hoke’s contributions on a variety of brass and woodwinds instruments are also noteworthy. For example, when he lets loose on the aforementioned “Blue Lonesome”, he turns what could be a bitter lament into an exultation of sadness and transforms the blues into something more funky and physical.
Welch constructs worlds where the imagination and harsh realities battle to find meaning and purpose. His characters may be innocents, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have a dark side. The world around them may have treated them unfairly, love may have left them alone, but that’s life. So they go to town and drink hard, or get lost in a PTSD haze, or cloister themselves away from other people. They escape into a world of their own delusions, and as he sings, “Just because it was a dream, you know doesn’t mean it wasn’t true.” Authenticity and reality are not the same things.
Welch has a raspy voice with lends legitimacy to his narratives as if he has experienced what he sings about—even when he takes the persona of a young girl in “A Flower”. His characters may be more stubborn than steadfast, but their persistence allows them to endure no matter how damaged they may be. Like a “Dust Devil”, it’s in their nature to keep on moving—even if they are just a force of nature.
But don’t let the words fool you. Welch is a musician whose lyrical talents are magnified by his crisp playing and production. His compositions work as songs more than poetry or prose because he smartly frames them with sounds that evoke the unfamiliar familiarity of thinking one has heard it all before and yet knowing that is not the case. He uses seemingly simple melodies to make the listener comfortable and lets them take surprising turns to match what goes on in the songs.
There is an aura of timelessness around these album cuts, but eight years is too long a wait between records for someone as talented as Welch. It’s great to have him releasing new music.