Turn of the Century Acoustic Americana: Gillian Welch, Mountain Man, and Beyond

Back in the 90s when I owned Austin Homebrew Supply, one of my favorite customers, Dan Martaus, worked on Austin City Limits, and as a result, I would get occasional inside scoops on upcoming tapings. One of those fantastic opportunities was to see a Son Volt taping, which I went to with my buddy Chip Tait. Son Volt was great – I think the other act taping that night was maybe Kenny Wayne Shepard? Chip was a huge Uncle Tupelo fan, and I was warming up to the genre pretty well. Fun time, free Shiner Bock, and we likely went to Lovejoys after.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – Acoustic Americana’s Guiding Lights

That was in the fall of 1996, and for Christmas that year my brother Chris gave me a copy of Gillian Welch’s Revival, and it plum blew my mind. Chip and I had been playing with a few people, trying to start a band, and I think it’s possible some precursor to The Fence Cutters had played at a Texas Brewer’s festival or two by then (I didn’t take many notes, and the internet is unhelpful about that era). Suddenly because of the way she wrote her songs (and the way Junior Brown wrote his, tbh) songwriting began to make sense to me – I started to see how you could make songs that had a good story that always had a chance of engaging and entertaining the listener. (More recently I discovered that she had studied songwriting at Berklee with Pat Pattison who has a successful songwriting system).

Later that spring, when the Son Volt episode of ACL came on PBS, the other act was Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and, once I saw them on stage, I was immediately in love for the long haul. I recall that they performed “Caleb Meyer” on the show – which I hadn’t heard yet – and oh man, what a fantastic song. One quip from that show was the (since oft-repeated) line about “folk songs of the 90’s – the 1990s.” To me, this was a clarion call – I want the directness of the Delmore Brothers and the Louvin Brothers, but I want the stories to be more relatable and of my era – and suddenly I saw the path.

Their first record with T-Bone Burnett walked around quite a few Americana styles – which I loved. That big bass fiddle on “Pass You By” and the electric guitar in “Tear My Stillhouse Down” created a delightful contrast that increased the impact of “Barroom Girls” and “Only One and Only.” Later, they contributed a track to the Horse Whisperer soundtrack which might be my favorite recorded performance of theirs:

I love it because of that huge bass note and the unique atmosphere the electricity (and tape hiss) adds to the performance. If the duo had continued down that pathway instead of the simple acoustic duo one, I would’ve likely lost my mind. (It was years before I discovered Low, who scratch that sonic itch. And, of course, Robert Plant made a big splash along that frontier with his Band of Joy record).

I was very excited about Look at Miss Ohio on Soul Journey and super jazzed about The Dave Rawlings Machine’s Nashville Obsolete. I haven’t listened to Poor David’s Almanack yet, but I am excited to track it down on vinyl. I owe them a huge debt for making songwriting more fun and less scary (it’s still scary).

Mountain Man and the Continuum

This story will start a little crooked as well. A few years ago I went to the Fun Fun Fun Fest down the hill, and one of the breakout performers for me was Purity Ring. This Canadian duo plays electronica with vocals, not usually my bag, but caught my eye for a few reasons. They had a midi apparatus that allowed the dude to play along with the prerecorded music and this device was also designed to light up when played, so the “DJ” was a lot more active and exciting to watch than in many other acts. The singer was very committed to her story telling, and the lyrics were odd and (literally) visceral, and well I just enjoyed it a lot, and I have their records and continue to see them when they come through town – big fan.

Purity Ring had opened me up to the world of electronica in a new way, so when the duo Sylvan Esso popped up on my radar, they immediately made sense to me. As I dived deeper into their music, I realized that many of the melodies had a familiar ring to them – like folk tunes. I would posit that Sylvan Esso owes a lot more to the Carter Family than to Diplo. On further analysis, I realized singer Amelia Meath had been in Mountain Man, who I remembered from the splash they made during one of the SXSW festivals.

The naked voices and wild abandon with which they inhabited every moment was downright intoxicating, and the songs were folky in content and structure but usually had something odd going on beneath the surface. Mountain Man started as a Vermont collaboration, and always reminds me of some other alternative folk coming out of the east:

  • I love Angel Olsen, and in particular, her record Burn Your Fire for No Witness. It may not be strictly acoustic, but it’s a natural extension of Acoustic Americana and Old-Timey.
  • Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown which features the Haden Triplets and Bon Iver is a favorite of mine. It’s a fully realized folk opera, so it hits me on an intellectual as well as a gut level.
  • Sam Amidon is mystifying.

Acoustic Americana and Beyond

So here we have a few of my thoughts about a couple of lynchpins of Acoustic Americana and where it’s leading. Two of my Fence Sitters Releases (More Blue Than Green and Mission to Mars) and one of my Zirque Bois d’Arc CDs (Songs About Russia) fit in this part of the musical spectrum, and I’ve got more on the way. Who are some of your favorites?

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