As summer turns to fall and leaves slowly begin to turn up here in the mountains, our music tastes have been taking a turn to a darker direction and the Gillian Welch’s catalog has been slipping more and more into our listening rotation. Besides being a phenomenal songwriter and singer, Welch is a master of imagery, and her music strikes a perfect balance between the whiskey-soaked misery of her lyrics and stunning beauty of her voice and meandering guitar work. Her newest (2011) record Harrow and the Harvest always reminds us of lonely research trips driving through gorgeous southern backroads on the way to archives. As an added bonus, the album artwork was done by John Baizley, headman of another of our musical heroes, the Savannah-based metal band Baroness.
Like the rest of this phenomenal record, Down Along the Dixie Line is a southern gothic masterpiece, and on a most literal level its about missing the South and hoping to catch a train down the dixie line. The song includes some standard sepia-toned Welch tropes, including, whiskey (of course), nostalgia for a lost past, grey weeds, and strumming banjos, along with all kinds of trains, such as squalling freight trains and shining bright rails. The narrator wants to “catch that fireball” a reference to either a colloquial label for a train, or the glamorous fast express or cannonball trains that once flew along the nation’s rail lines in the golden age of rail travel. In an apparent nod to this lost bit of railroad history, “they pulled up the tracks” and the narrator can’t go back. Maybe one of these days, we will post a northbound train song, but as in so many other train songs, the ultimate goal in this one is to head South and leave the “northland far behind.”
Bluegrass maestro Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers covered the song as well, and while it certainly translates well to a catchy bluegrass jam, I think the song loses a bit of its mystique with the increased speed.