A native of Paragould, Arkansas, DeMent was born on January 5, 1961 and was the last of 14 children born to Patric and Flora
Mae DeMent. Although her family had been farmers for several generations, the family farm had failed and been sold by the time
she was born. At the age of three, DeMent and her family relocated to Buena Park, California, a small community about an hour
from Los Angeles. "We lived in a housing tract," she said. "We didn't have a city or a section of tall buildings, but it was heavily
populated with houses lined up against each other, which was very unlike where my family came from."
However, the rural atmosphere of Arkansas continued to be felt throughout DeMent's childhood. "My mom was in her late 40s and my dad was 56 when we moved to California," she said. "They were pretty much who they were. They were determined to continue being who they were. They worked really hard to keep everything in the home the way it had been before. They took us to churches that were full of a lot of Arkansas and Oklahoma transplants. The minister was from the same town that we were from. I felt like I got a good dose of both worlds. "
Music was a thread that bound all the members of DeMent's family. Her father played country fiddle, while her mother -- who sang lead on the gospel-tinged tune "Higher Ground" on Infamous Angel -- dreamed of singing at the Grand Ole Opry. "There was constant music in the house," DeMent recalled. "Everybody in my family was involved in music in some way. All of my sisters sang and played piano and some played the guitar too. My brother, who lived at home, played guitar and wrote songs. It was his dream to be a country singer. My first recollections are the piano banging all the time, records playing, my mother singing and my brother walking around the house with a guitar slung over his shoulders." DeMent's earliest musical influence came from the gospel music that she heard at church and at home. "It's the one form of music that was consistently in my world from the beginning," she said. "I still sing those songs. I don't think I could separate what I do from that type of music, even on this record, even though it's plugged-in and has certain rock influences on some songs. Lyrically and in terms of what I try to do musically, there's no separating me from that. I still aim with my music for the response that those church songs evoked in my family and myself and the people around me."
DeMent's musical vision was shaped further by the songs of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash and Tom T. Hall. "People seem to have a hard time defining what I do," she said. "When I first started, people called it folk music and others called it bluegrass. I've heard 'country,' and now I'm hearing 'rock' with this record. It's all of those influences involved in what I've become. It seems like a natural thing."
Although she played piano and sang as naturally as bouncing a ball in the street, DeMent's shyness prevented her from performing outside of her home. "I didn't see myself musically" she said. "I left the church and dropped out of school when I was seventeen, but I didn't pursue it. I had other jobs and did non-musical things. I'd come home at night and play the piano, singing for myself."
DeMent continued to treat music as a secret until she was 25. "I suddenly realized that I had become pretty unhappy, and that I wasn't enjoying any of these other things that I was trying to do," she said. "I made a conscious decision to stop running from the thing that I loved and just do it. Even if nobody liked it, even if it got me nowhere, even if everybody laughed at my songs, I was going to write them and I was going to go out to sing them."
DeMent's decision was initially sparked by a creative writing class that she took at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. "That
class did a lot to stimulate me creatively, and had a lot to do with why I went into writing songs," she recalled. "The teacher was
really good. She didn't dwell on your structure or your misspellings, even though she would point that out. But if you had a good
creative idea, she would get really excited. She seemed to truly enjoy that when a student would find things. I thrived on that."
A few months after the class met for the last time, DeMent wrote her first song. "I sat down one day and decided that I wanted to write a song," she said. "I decided to stop worrying about everybody else and what they would think about it and write for me. After one, you write songs forever. For some reason, that day, I managed to get a verse and chorus and another verse. It was just amazing. For somebody who could never write more than one line, I was in heaven. I just kept going from there."
Like many other budding singer-songwriters, DeMent moved to Nashville to build her musical career. "I wanted to make records of my songs," she said. "I felt that Nashville was the most likely place where I would find a way to do that." It wasn't long before DeMent was attracting attention with her warm vocals and songwriting skills. One of the first artists to offer encouragement was folksinger and record producer Jim Rooney, who helped her to secure a record contract with the independent Rounder/Philo label and produced her first two albums.
Performances at the Newport Folk Festival helped to spread the word. "Whenever you play and there's a lot of people there to hear you, that's a good thing," she said. "You stand a chance to gain a chunk of new fans. You hope that more than a few people leave wanting to go and buy your records. The Newport Folk Festival is pretty famous. When I told people that I'd played there, they tended to be impressed."
When a tape of Infamous Angel was heard by Lenny Waronker, president of Warner Brothers Records, in 1993, the executive signed DeMent and reissued the album. DeMent's subsequent albums have been released by Warner. "Creatively, it's been the same [as it was with Rounder/Philo]," she said. "One of the reasons that I went to Warner Brothers was that I was hoping that the distribution would be better and it would be easier to sell my records."
1993 was an important year for DeMent in other ways as well. Moving back to Kansas City, she married her long-time boyfriend Elmer McColl, who now serves as her road manager. "[Nashville] had become a little suffocating," she said. "I found that, after the thrill wore off, I was little uncomfortable living in this environment where everybody was doing the same thing. I didn't really enjoy that at all, but I felt that I needed to leave when I left. I learned a lot about the music business which I needed to know. I needed to understand how to publish a song and how to deal with all these facets that have nothing to do with writing or creating."
Several of DeMent's songs have been covered by other artists. Natalie Merchant performed several of her songs in concert and,
joined by David Byrne, covered "Let The Mystery Be" on MTV's Unplugged. Merle Haggard performed her song "No Time To
Cry" on his album 1996. "The first song [of mine] I heard was Natalie and David Byrne and I liked it a lot," she said. "I thought it
sounded pretty cool. I can't say that I've ever heard Merle doing anything that I didn't approve of. So, naturally, when he did
something of mine, it was a double treat. He did a really good job with the song. I liked it a lot." Although she wrote in the liner
notes of The Way I Should that "the thrill that came with the arrival of these eleven songs will be a memory, and I will have
already spent several months killing time waiting for the next song," DeMent has yet to find the inspiration needed to begin writing
again. "I haven't written anything since [I completed the album], which is actually what happened after my last record," she said. "I
went about a year before I wrote anything. Maybe that's the way it will be for me. I sometimes have to breathe a lot before I get
an inspiration for something, and I do rely a lot on inspiration.
The Man From God Knows Where
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Gillian Welch - Hell Among the Yearlings - reviewed by Shawn Kimbro
"Double double toil and trouble" is a phrase that comes to mind upon listening to Hell Among The Yearlings, the much anticipated new
album by Gillian Welch. There's no shortage of toil or trouble in this collection of backwoods ballads crafted by this pale, bone-thin
songstress and her sorcerer symbiont, David Rawlings. Welch's first album, Revival, focused on the trials and tragedy of struggle-filled
lives and elevated her to near mythological status among fans of acoustic music. But the question on everyone's mind, including Welch's,
has been whether she could repeat that polished yet unpretentious earthiness in a second album.
She did not. This album has a much darker and more supernatural feel. Gone are the bright morning stars, spring flowers, and paper
moons. In their place, Welch brews up a sinister potion of murder, addiction, demon possession, and despair. The result is a haunting
collection of macabre ballads and eerie elegies that sound as if they might have been repeated in secret mountain gatherings for
Except for a cameo appearance by producer T-Bone Burnette, Welch and Rawlings are the only musicians on the album. The spare and
simple arrangements complement Welch's lilting voice while Rawling's organic harmony adds substance without being overpowering.
Welch folds a new ingredient into the potion when she lightly frails a minor-tuned banjo on three of the songs. She sweeps into high gear
on the twangy "Honey Now," then saunters into a slow, sleepy rhythm in "Whiskey Girl." "Rock of Ages" is an original psalm of faith in
times of trial, while "One Morning" is a mother's lament upon the death of a wayward son. "Caleb Meyer, your ghost is gonna wear them
rattling chains" she chants in "Caleb Meyer", the story of the justifiable homicide of a drunken rapist. Then she personifies drug addiction
as a lover in the Civil War-set, "My Morphine."
The album is a mesmerizing blend of musical style and crafty songwriting. Gillian Welch has returned to the well and again brought up a
bucket of sparse compositions that drip with both spellbinding
tradition and hypnotic innovation. She stirs in just the right amount of somber sentiment and ghostly instrumentation to produce a melange
of melodies befitting an acoustic priestess. "Fire burn and cauldron bubble"--with "Hell Among The Yearlings", Welch once again proves
she is at the top of her craft.
"It wasn't like I sat down and said 'I want to make a darker more aggressive record,' that's
just the kind of material that started getting written," says Gillian (pronounced with a hard
"G") Welch, comparing her new album Hell Among The Yearlings to her 1996
Grammy-nominated debut album Revival. "Caleb Meyer," the first song written for the new
album, and the first sequentially, is the story of a woman killing a man who's attempting to
rape her. This sets the tone for Gillian's delving into the dark side of human nature.
The title, taken from an old fiddle tune, foreshadows the sounds of the album. "We bumped
into the title and really liked it . The funny thing is, most fiddle tunes have about six titles.
Alternate titles for that tune include Trouble Amongst the Bovine, Ox In The Mud, and
Rats In The Fence Corner. We thought about those," she jokes, "but we thought Hell
Among The Yearlings was the most appropriate."
Hell Among The Yearlings took very little time to record. Two weeks were spent in Los
Angeles and then four more days were done back in Nashville. It is a sparse record, with
Gillian and David playing all the instruments (with the exception of producer T Bone
Burnett's piano and Hammond B3 organ on "Whiskey Girl.") "The reasons for making a
duo record is pretty dark in itself. The only musician we had in mind, Roy Huskey Jr.,
passed away. He was on the first record. The only recording idea I had was for Dave and
Roy and I to be the core of this record and then maybe T Bone would play something and
maybe someone else would come in and play an odd instrument. And then Roy got sick, so
then it was a duo record. I couldn't make the leap to replace Roy."
"So, the original planning wasn't, 'okay let's make a duo record.' But that's what it ended up
being. One nice thing in working with T Bone was if anything did come up, like we need
bass or something, drums or piano, I knew T Bone could do it."
T Bone Burnett, who also produced Revival and has worked with the likes of Bob Dylan,
Counting Crows, and Elvis Costello, encouraged Gillian and David to record themselves at
home any time they felt like singing. One result was the spontaneously fun "Honey Now": "It
was this rainy day project we thought might be a good demo but T Bone really dug it, and
ended up on the album as is."
Part of the difference in the writing for Hell Among The Yearlings versus Revival was that
Gillian began writing on the banjo for the first time. "I didn't own a banjo until recently.
'Caleb Meyer' was initially written on it, so were 'Devil Had A Hold Of Me', 'One
Morning,' 'Rock of Ages,' and 'Winter's Come & Gone' (but later finished on guitar). When
I play the banjo, it's a melody, not chord changes. It's much more modal, and it's more
open ended because the chord changes are implied. It produced some arranging problems.
I learned a lot - big learning experience."
Gillian explains the songwriting process, and how she and Dave collaborate: "For Dave, the
whole game is how much he can be invisible. It's a funny thing, when he comes up with
really great stuff he is completely transparent and you don't know he was ever there, and it's
true with his playing too. It's a funny job when you're really trying not to be noticed."
Gillian grew up in Southern California and was introduced to the likes of the Carter Family
and Woody Guthrie at an early age when she attended a "hippie grade school," where
students sang old folk songs. At the age of eight, Gillian began playing guitar, but it wasn't
until she attended college at UC Santa Cruz that her passion for bluegrass was born. It was
there that she discovered the Stanley Brothers and the other bluegrass brother groups. She
met David Rawlings while attending the Berkelee College Of Music in Boston. The two
moved to Nashville in 1992 to try a career in music and it was there that they began writing
songs and performing.
Slowly, Nashville and the music industry took notice of Gillian and David. In 1993 Gillian
won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at one of the nation's premier bluegrass events,
the Merle Watson Memorial Festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Before long, her
songs were being recorded by Emmylou Harris, Nashville Bluegrass Band, and Tim and
Mollie O'Brien. Soon, Gillian had a publishing deal; and soon after that she had a record
deal with Almo Sounds. In 1996, Almo Sounds released Revival to the raves of critics and
One fan of Gillian's is one of her idols, Ralph Stanley. The Legendary Stanley Brothers
Volume 1&2 on Rebel Records were the records that specifically got Gillian into bluegrass
music in the first place, and they continue to be a source of great inspiration for her.
Recently, Rebel suggested she sing a duet with Ralph Stanley on his forthcoming album,
Clinch Mountain Country. The album, now out, has Ralph Stanley singing duets with Bob
Dylan, George Jones, Ricky Skaggs, and Alison Krauss among others. "That was one of
the scariest things I've ever done - to sing with your biggest influence! My God! We sang a
Carter family song 'Gold Watch and Chain.' I did the best job I could, but when I was
finished I told everybody that I had gotten my ass kicked because he's so good. It was a
The popularity of Gillian's songs have opened up her world. She has toured throughout the
U.S. and Europe in support of Revival. Highlights included playing the Grand Ole Opry
("Playing the Opry was totally out of this world. I know we had that deer in the headlights
look"), with Mark Knopfler at the Royal Albert Hall in London ("It was like playing inside a
giant birthday cake"), sharing bills with Son Volt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Guy Clark,
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and countless festivals.
Hell Among The Yearlings is sure to attract still more attention for Gillian. She has been
described as everything from neo-traditional country to American Primitive, bluegrass to
folk. In 1997, Revival was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
"I have mixed feelings about the word folk," Gillian confesses. "I just don't feel like a folk
singer. I take heart though. I bumped into a list of the last couple records to win the
Contemporary Folk category and it was something: Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and
then Bob Dylan won it last year." She laughs and adds, "I guess I'm feeling okay with the
folk category. I'm not going to complain. If they put them in as contemporary folk, you
know maybe I am contemporary folk."
Time (The Revelator)
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