Gillian Welch’s '10 sad songs'

Allison Backous Troy

I seem to keep running across laments these days. At least, the idea of lament - what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls “a love song” for what is broken and lost in our world - keeps coming up in various places: summer books meant to be read in fun, old essays from my students, collections of art and music. I can’t help but think that it is a cultural reaction, something unconsciously surfacing across the genres that mark our artistic, political and spiritual reflections.

And Gillian Welch’s latest album, "The Harrow and the Harvest," is another piece of evidence for what I think is true: we are harrowed and lamenting, all of us, and we need music whose beauty haunts us, music that might help us get by.

Welch must understand this, too, albeit unconsciously. In a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s "Fresh Air," Welch and her partner David Rawlings laughed about the sound of the new album, which they called “10 sad songs.”

And the songs are sad – when you sing a mixture of folk, bluegrass and gospel, it comes with the territory. Addictions and bitterness, lost acres and repentant lovers fill the songs with a familiar ache, something that you expect from Welch, whose earlier albums both echo and renew the tendencies of the southern traditions that her music inhabits. The song “Scarlet Town” spins a legend about a jilted bride whose last words are simple, lyrical curses:

So fare you well, my own true loveIf you ever see me aroundI’ll be looking through a telescopeFrom hell to Scarlet Town

But there is a complexity to this album that rises above what good country music requires. There is a richness here that, I think, draws on Flannery O’Connor’s famous understanding of the American South as being “Christ-haunted,” a place where vestiges of the Spirit hang over the landscape, powerful and unyielding and true. Take “The Way It Goes,” a song about a list of characters whose life trials feel both unavoidable and somehow beautiful, touched by something unexplainable, and perhaps holy:

See the brightest ones of all Early in October fallThat’s the way that it goes, that’s the wayWhile the dark ones go to bedWith good whiskey in their headsThat’s the way that it goes, that’s the way

But "The Harrow and the Harvest" is not simply a collection of characters for Welch to sing about – this album, of all her albums, feels the most personal to me, the most intimate and emotionally wrenching.

It is narrow-minded to assume that an artist’s words are always derived from autobiographical experience. And Welch herself admits to nothing – if the songs feel personal, it is because the vision of the album, and the quality of Welch and Rawlings’ harmony and craft, is the result of that 10 years’ wait between albums, that necessary, gestating silence that beautiful words and music require.

If the album is truly a list of “10 sad songs,” then the sadness that the songs contain is a helpful one, something that could help each of us in the sight we bring to our circumstances. It is a sadness that does not claim victory too quickly, that recognizes the slow, lingering effects of loss and regret. It is a sadness that restores, naming us for who we are, and giving us words to sing, haunted and unsure as we can be:

Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, honeyHard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, sugarHard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more

(Images courtesy of Acony Records.)

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure