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Soul Journey
Artist: Gillian Welch
Label: Acony Records
Length: 10 tracks, 39.07 minutes

Let me put one thing on record from the get-go: I hate country music with a vengeance. The slightest aural whiff of pretty much anything in the genre makes me want to run screaming from the metaphorical saloon and dunk my head in the horse trough outside to escape the sound. 
 
A little melodramatic perhaps, but then you can imagine my surprise when late one night, in catching the last ten minutes of the final episode of a documentary series chronicling the history of country music, I heard the voice and guitar of Gillian Welch. Immediately my ears pricked up and I thought, now THAT I can listen to.
 
Was it the subtle, unpredictable turn of the guitar chords, the understatement of the plaintive vocals, or that which the narrator described as a return to the “front porch” origins of country; namely, simple heartfelt home-spun music for self-expression and emotional outpouring, rather than boot-scooting populist pretension? 
 
Whatever it was about those snippets of songs, in the end it was the title of this latest album, Soul Journey, which prompted me to do something I thought I would never do; purchase a country music CD. I was pleasantly surprised, and at the very least convinced that perhaps country could have some redeeming qualities after all.
 
These are certainly ten good, sweet songs. The instrumentation is somewhat minimalist and very restrained, but that’s its appeal. Drums are kept to the basics or not used at all, and her musical partner David Rawlings never gets his voice heard beyond the background. Welch has a remarkably odd, nasal, listenable voice, and the mix brings it to the fore in every song, allowing it to fully resonate with simple honesty and quiet wisdom. 
 
That said, I must admit I didn’t find it all that stunning in the lyric department. I was expecting at least one song to explore the spiritual journeying suggested by the album title in some greater depth than just that of track four, “I Had a Real Good Mother and Father” ("They taught me how to pray / Now I’m truly converted / And I’m walking on the narrow way"). Occasionally it gets a little darker (“One Monkey”) or nods to the traditions of folk music (“No One Knows My Name”), and even boasts a beautiful lullaby in “One Little Song”. Apart from that, it’s about traveling, seasons, bars and homely images of a much loved childhood place. Nice enough, but nothing gob-smackingly impressive in my opinion.
 
So, did I expect too much from my first country music album? Perhaps. I think country is a little like death metal; love it or hate it, you’ve got to admit that it takes a certain talent to play it. By the end of this disc, I had grown to appreciate Gillian Welch’s decidedly genuine talent, if not the genre her albums are filed under at the music store. That’s a good start. 
 
So, if you’re like me and would usually rather staple stinging nettles to your nether regions than listen to anything much out of Nashville, order a shot of Gillian Welch and see if you can’t find a corner of that old saloon to sit in and finally admit that country ain’t all that bad if she’s at the mike. 
 

Brendan Boughen 3/29/2004


 

   
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