Guest post by Tim Byron.
I had quite happily ignored the existence of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings more-or-less for years. I remember bandmates enthusing about Rawlings’ ability to put a capo on the guitar just for a guitar solo, without breaking a sweat, and then take it off again, as if it was as easy as pressing a button. You may remember Rawlings as the guy Ryan Adams is having an argument with about Morissey at the beginning of Heartbreaker. Mentally I filed this away as guitar nerd talk that wasn’t applicable to me. A former housemate told me recently that he had all her albums when we lived together, and played them often. Somehow this managed to avoid seeping into my consciousness. But her album from this year, The Harrow And The Harvest, made something click for me. I wonder what did that to me. Multiple choice time:
a) I needed to be older and wiser to appreciate Gillian’s subtler charms. Certainly I am older now, surprise surprise, and I am hopefully at least fractionally wiser.
b) I had fallen further into the alt-country rabbit hole since 2006, when I lived with that former housemate. Now I have a beard and Willie Nelson box sets.
c) There’s something about The Harrow And The Harvest that works as a gateway drug. Now that I have her complete discography, the songs on The Harrow And The Harvest have a certain elegance of form in the songwriting department that earlier work often lacks; she has a larger repertoire of songwriting tricks now, and she uses them expertly.
d) All of the above.
Anyway, ‘Tennessee’ is a song about temptation, and one with an unusual tint to it. Songs about temptation often portray it in good-and-evil terms. But Welch has mixed feelings about temptation; she knows it’s meant to be bad, that the world of temptation is dangerous territory, but she can’t help but thinking that it’s what makes life worth living. After all, she was already stirring trouble as a nine year old in Sunday school; she’s ‘never been an angel’. When she sings that ‘your affront to my virtue was a touch too much, but it left a little twinkle in my eye’, it implies the dangers of sin, but still makes it sound irresistible. And when she sings, ‘Even so I try to be a good girl, it’s only what I want that makes me weak’, it’s a reminder of how good temptations feel in the moment, about how good girl intentions can be obliterated by darker, more powerful emotions.
When she and Rawlings harmonise on the “fa la las” in the chorus, it strongly (and likely deliberately) evokes ‘Henry Lee’ by Nick Cave and PJ Harvey – another song about temptation and seduction, in murder ballad form. But the most interesting, most ambiguous, part of the chorus is the last line, ‘sweet heaven when I die’. It’s an important line; the song ends on it, unresolved. And for a song that mentions how ‘dancing with damnation is a ball’, that mentions being kicked out of Sunday school, you’d think that Welch’s narrator is well aware that the life she leads is not going to lead to ‘sweet heaven’ in the religious sense – she’s a whisky-drinking ‘child of sin’ musician. So what is this ’sweet heaven’? Is it denial, a belief that she’ll see ‘sweet heaven’ when she dies despite her unreligious behaviour? Is she planning to die while yielding to some temptation (the ‘sweet heaven’)? Or is it that life is pain, and so sweet heaven is only achievable when life finally stops?
Either way, it troubles me. We humans are made to be tempted; it doesn’t take us much to show our animalistic underbellies. Psychologists have argued that we have only limited amounts of self-control – if we’re trying very hard to control ourselves in one area, it’s very easy to yield to temptation in another. And the sheer beauty of Welch’s song – the lushness of the recording, Rawlings’ ever-tasteful spidery guitar parts, the smoothness of the sound of their harmonies together – makes the song more troubling, because its beauty is seductive just like temptation is.
Gillian Welch – ‘Tennessee’
is one of our favourite writers in the country, renowned for his ‘Number Ones’ column overt at The Vine which we cannot recommend highly enough. He also lectures in psychology at The University of Queensland. This is his first of what we hope will be many One A Day pieces.