Kevin Welch's first 15 years in Nashville went pretty smoothly. Artists like Waylon Jennings, Trisha Yearwood, Ricky Skaggs, and Roger Miller recorded the native Okie's songs, and by the early 90s he'd embarked on a solo career, releasing two albums of intelligent folk- and rock-tinged country (dubbed western beat for its literary qualities) on Reprise. The critics liked them and so did a respectable number of consumers, but the label wanted bigger sales, and the pressure led to a bitter split. In 1995 Welch joined some of his songwriter buddies who'd also had enough of corporate Nashville--Kieran Kane, Mike Henderson, and Tammy Rogers--in starting an independent label called Dead Reckoning. Life Down Here on Earth, Welch's release that year, was grittier and more stylistically diverse than its major-label predecessors, and on the recent Beneath My Wheels, which sports a shot of a startlingly grizzled-looking Welch on its cover, he sounds even darker and more introspective. From the ominously lumbering gospel-soaked "Everybody's Gotta Walk" to the fragile acoustic ballad "Five Million One Thousand Miles," Welch's songs are inhabited by characters grappling with the most basic philosophical issues, searching for answers inside their own heads ("There is no greater danger than trying to find yourself / Because there is no stranger stranger than a man is to himself," from "Anna Lise Please") or on the open road. Using some hard-rock rhythms, the occasional Celtic flourish, and a raw overall attack, Welch bears more than a passing resemblance to his old pal Steve Earle, but whereas Earle prefers anthems and heart-on-sleeve sentiment, Welch layers his songs with meaning in such a way that you're compelled to keep digging into them. Welch plays in the middle of the first day of Summer on Southport, a two-day outdoor festival organized by Schubas; appearing on the same bill are Flaco Jimenez, Victoria Williams, Casolando, and Andrew Bird with Kat Eggleston. Saturday, 6 PM, parking lot, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ron Keith.