Gillian Welch: Hell Among The Yearlings

Gillian Welch: Hell Among The Yearlings

More than any other vocal-centered pop form, folk music encourages artists to cover one another. Like the best stories, the best folk songs are often passed from generation to generation by different players: Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg, for instance, have both championed the works of Woody Guthrie to audiences 35 years apart from one another. Nanci Griffith is one of the nation's finest folk singers, and Other Voices, Too is her second collection of songs written and made famous by other people. The selections run the folk gamut from the obvious (Pete Seeger's "If I Had A Hammer") to the inspired (post-folkie Richard Thompson's "Wall Of Death"), and the music is universally loose and spontaneous in the best sense. Just as impressive is the formidable cast of players she has amassed for the project, including Thompson, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, John Prine, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, the remaining Crickets, and too many more to mention, some of whom trade off vocal duties with Griffith. The collection works as a companion to Griffith's forthcoming folk memoir Other Voices, and her passion for documenting the world of folk is obviously labor-intensive. Of course, it would still be nice to hear an album of new material, which Griffith hasn't released since 1994's excellent Flyer, but in the meantime, superior collections like Other Voices, Too will do just fine. Gillian Welch, on the other hand, fills her records solely with originals, though her music is so clearly indebted to the old-school Appalachian sounds of The Carter Family—and the bluegrass of The Stanley Brothers—that you couldn't be faulted for confusing Welch's songs with those from the past. Even simpler than material by her fellow fireside folkies in Freakwater, Welch's songs were being covered by artists as prominent as Emmylou Harris before her 1996 debut, Revival, was even released. The new Hell Among The Yearlings is even darker and more spare, played primarily by Welch and songwriting partner David Rawlings. While the songs themselves don't break a whole lot of new ground, it's good to hear Welch tackling tougher material like "My Morphine," "The Devil Had A Hold Of Me," and "I'm Not Afraid," which admirably hearken back to the bleak, biblical paranoia of Robert Johnson.

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