America’s the name…but you can just call us Hicksville. Yes, we did spend the better part of the 20th century turning our backs on our rural roots, and it wasn’t that long ago that ”Okie” was a pejorative on par with ”Polack.” But the year’s soundtrack du jour — the era-defining successor to ”Saturday Night Fever” and ”Flashdance” — is the improbably platinum ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, which reprises such chartbusters as ”You Are My Sunshine” and ”I’ll Fly Away.” Maybe it just took the turn of a millennium, or the prospect of a new round of Madonna moments, for hillbilly culture to take on a new shine. In the face of all this fecund country/folk revivalism, can two-step really stand a chance?
Well, no one’s barring the shop doors in anticipation of a bank run on Stanley Brothers records, but it’s reasonable to expect that the NPR-lovin’ Yankee masses may be hungry for more. They need look no further than to the ”O Brother” sisterhood. Emmylou Harris is laying off the bluegrass and leaning more on rock these days, but the other two thirds of the soundtrack’s female triumvirate, Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss, have new albums that mean to flagrantly evoke period-specific American ruralism and then transcend it. Durn if they don’t pull it off.
Krauss’ purity of voice makes her come off as an angel of mercy, whereas Welch’s persona has always been closer to angel of death. At least she was playing up the Southern gothic angle on 1998’s ”Hell Among the Yearlings,” but there are no rapes, murders, or nasty apparitions on Welch’s subtler third effort, Time (the Revelator). Undiminished, though, is her and partner David Rawlings’ knack for penning originals that any ethnomusicologist would swear must’ve been written in the ’30s and cunningly suppressed till now, from the earthworkers’ hymn ”Red Clay Halo” to the Tin Pan Alley/Dust Bowl crossover ballad ”Dear Someone.”
Ironically, while this is Welch’s quietest album, with nary a drum or electric instrument in earshot, it’s even closer to the spiritual vicinity of rock. Squint your ears during the sprawling title track and you can almost hear Neil Young & Crazy Horse having a tympanum-splitting workout underneath the twin acoustic guitars. ”My First Lover” has Rawlings playing hard blues riffs on banjo while Welch nonchalantly relates how she remembers more about her first boyfriend’s Steve Miller records than she does about the beau in question. Then there’s a stretch of five songs that are actually about rock & roll, including a paean to Elvis that amazingly invokes all his animal energy without ever breaking a sweat or a Dobro string.
By contrast, fiddler fatale Krauss doesn’t have a rock bone in her body, and that’s just fine. She’s all about salve, even when she’s licking her own wounds. New Favorite — the latest from Krauss and her band, Union Station (out Aug. 14) — opens with ”Let Me Touch You for Awhile,” in which the singer eases the pain of a tortured stranger she finds drowning in whiskey, appearing to him like some kind of sexual Florence Nightingale. She’s certainly not all sunshine: ”Take Me for Longing” is a demand to be desired as an objet de passion and not just a good girl, and ”Daylight” makes a great, harmonically buoyant case that living in illumination is scarier than in the dark. Even exploring the underworld, though, Krauss is a sweet-voiced musical seraph. Occasional lead vocals from Dan Tyminski (who dubbed George Clooney in ”O Brother”) provide a rougher-hewn link to bluegrass’ Depression-era roots. But Krauss’ dominant balladry sails on a brand of depression that’s altogether timeless. By the time she almost whispers through the title lament, written for her by Welch, the intimacy is almost as unsettling as it is pretty.
Little about either album is identifiably of the 21st century — except for Welch’s ”Everything Is Free,” which, without ever invoking the N-word, is clearly Napster-inspired. ”They figured it out/We’re gonna do it anyway/Doesn’t matter if it doesn’t pay,” she dolefully croons on behalf of working musicians everywhere, before deciding that everyone might be better off without recordings, just singing at home, to their lovers and themselves. Maybe giving up our CDs is a retro bridge too far. But ”O Brother” brilliantly encapsulated a time just before the mass-media blitzkrieg, when music was a local, or even strictly individual, affair. And Krauss and Welch get us back to that personal place about as much as any digitalized matter could. ”Time” Grade: A-; ”Favorite” Grade: B+