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The real Beverly hillbilly

Gillian Welch hails from Hollywood, but merges Appalachian echoes with her own authentic artistry


If biographies matter to you, then Gillian Welch is a fraud. Welch sings harrowing songs in the old-time way: minor-key murder ballads, banjo-laden laments and stone-faced sagas of despair that appear to have been preserved in the amber of Appalachia.

The backwoods chanteuse, though, hails from Hollywood. Her parents wrote music for The Carol Burnett Show. Later she attended the University of California at Santa Cruz and Boston's Berklee College of Music. Whence the banjo and the mountain drawl? Is she for real?

Do yourself a favor this week. Leave her biography to the Freudians and the good folks at the A&E channel. The music is what matters, and Welch, who plays this Tuesday at the Amphitheatre at Regency Park, delivers.

Her music gathers its harvest from the vast wonderland of American folk styles. Bluegrass and gospel, blues and rockabilly: All of these sounds echo through Welch's tunes. These trawls through long-standing genres have earned Welch a variety of titles--traditionalist, revivalist and neo-traditionalist--none of which tells us much about the rough grace that characterizes her best songs.

When last she left us, Welch was floating her way through the hypnotic "I Dream a Highway," the 15-minute epic that closed her 2001 album, Time (The Revelator). Delivered in her narcotic drawl, leavened with bittersweet harmonies, filigreed with myth and burdened with regret, "I Dream a Highway" is essential Welch.

"Step into the light, poor Lazarus," she sings, like a weeping Jesus before the dead man's tomb. "Don't lie alone behind the window shade/Let me see the mark death made/I dream a highway back to you." The last line makes you wonder who is raising whom.

Of course, Welch is no Christ and neither is this song's broken-down narrator, who we also find burning on a three-hour drug binge, languishing in a Hollywood diner and fantasizing about becoming Gram Parsons and John Henry. The song, like so many of Welch's tunes, braids American folk myths with tales of personal loss and possible redemption.

If that makes Welch a traditionalist, then so be it. Any tradition that deep and that complex deserves to be mined for all of its worth. Welch does the job to a T.

When Welch drifts into town this week, she'll carry a songbag stuffed with old favorites and bursting with titles from her brand new album, Soul Journey. Released on her own Acony Records label, the new record often fleshes out Welch's normally stripped-down acoustic sound with muscle of a full band. "Soul Journey," Welch insists, "really is the sunniest record I've ever made."

Well, maybe. Expect music more heartbreaking than heartwarming on Tuesday night. More than anything else, expect music that is, as Welch sings, a spellbinding "silver vision," an old-timey, mostly acoustic sound that will, nevertheless, electrify your soul. EndBlock

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