Americana artist Gillian Welch was born in New York and adopted by a pair of comedy music entertainers. Welch later learned that her mother may have grown up in the mountains of North Carolina, possibly an explanation for how her music is able to tap into a bygone era. Songs like ‘The Devil had a Hold of Me’ and ‘Miner’s Refrain’ situate Welch in early 20th century Appalachia.
Welch, however, was a late convert to roots music – in college she played drums in a psychedelic surf band and bass in a goth band named Penny Dreadful. When a college roommate played a bluegrass record by The Stanley Brothers, her future musical course was determined
Welch moved to Nashville after finishing college, realising all her favourite music was made there. She was a successful songwriter before releasing her first album; ‘Orphan Girl’ was a standout on Emmylou Harris’ 1995 classic Wrecking Ball. She was fortunate to have veteran roots-rock producer T-Bone Burnett work on her 1996 debut Revival.
Welch is billed as a solo act, but she’s supported by partner David Rawlings on guitar and harmony vocals. Rawlings’ guitar sound is distinctive – his primary instrument is a 1935 Epiphone Olympic arch top guitar. She’s been far from prolific, only releasing five studio albums to date, although she’s also co-written many songs on Rawlings’ solo records. She also has notable non-album material; it’s worth checking out her cover of Radiohead‘s ‘Black Star’, while 2018’s ‘When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings’ was nominated for an Oscar.
Gillian Welch Album Reviews
Gillian Welch had her act completely figured out by the time she released her first record. She’s fortunate to have T-Bone Burnett in the producer’s chair, who leaves Revival low-key and dignified, using vintage equipment once used by Hank Williams. The musical backing is restrained, but includes luminaries like Jim Keltner on drums, James Burton on guitar, and Greg Leisz on dobro, although as always the key support comes from the harmonies and guitar of David Rawlings.
One reason for the authenticity of Revival is that Welch is able to harness the potency of religion – the record opens with the line “I am an orphan on God’s highway”, while the lyric of ‘By The Mark’ is unadulterated gospel. There’s just enough variety to keep Revival moving – ‘Pass You By’ and ‘Tear My Stillhouse Down’ inject some electric blues – but the main attractions on Revival are the plaintive vocals and pretty guitar picking of tracks like ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Acony Bell’.
Revival is an outstanding debut, a record that stands out in Welch’s consistent catalogue.
Hell Among the Yearlings
Revival wasn’t a bed of roses, but Welch’s second set of songs is even darker. Songs like ‘My Morphine’ and ‘One Morning’ are imbued with a bleakness that enhances their authenticity. T-Bone Burnett is back in the producer’s chair, and provides a suitably austere sound. Apart from T-Bone Burnett’s piano and organ on ‘Whiskey Girl’, Welch and Rawlings play all the instruments themselves – Welch plays banjo on ‘The Devil Had A Hold of Me’, ‘One Morning’, and ‘Rock of Ages’.
Despite the changes in approach, Hell Among the Yearlings represents a mild sophomore slump. It’s largely a repeat of the early 20th century Appalachian folk songs, but not as prepossessing. The chorus of ‘Miner’s Refrain’ lacks the naturalness of most of Welch’s material; the “down in the hole” chorus seems forced. There’s still a lot to like; the supple finger-picking of ‘Caleb Meyer’ and a revisit to the Christian themes of Revival on ‘Rock of Ages’ are both welcome.
Hell Among the Yearlings is largely successful in its role as the darker sibling of Revival, but it’s still one of Welch’s lesser efforts.
Time (The Revelator)
Welch’s credibility as a writer of mountain ballads was questioned by some critics; she stepped in a different direction with her third album. Her songs are still presented in acoustic form, with just Rawlings and Welch playing instruments, but the lyrical focus is different. These songs trawl through a wide sweep of American history, dealing with Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the Titanic sinking, and Elvis Presley. Tucked away among the history are some of Welch’s most personal songs – you learn more about Welch from a single couplet like “I do not remember any goin’ wrong/Just a record playin that old Steve Miller song” than from her entire first two records.
The most celebrated piece is the closer ‘I Dream A Highway’, which clocks in at almost fifteen minutes. It’s strangely hypnotic despite its slow pacing and minimal harmonic interest; it helps that Welch’s lyrics are strong with lines like “Now you be Emmylou and I’ll be Gram/I send a letter, don’t know who I am.” The version of ‘Revelator’ was intended as a microphone test, but it captured the spontaneous first take feel that Rawlings (in the producer’s seat this time) were searching for. April 14 is the date of both Lincoln’s assassination and the Titanic’s accident; referenced in the song pair ‘April the 14th (Part 1)’ and ‘Ruination Day (Part 2)’.
Marrying the magical and intuitive interplay of Welch and Rawlings with more expansive songwriting, Time (The Revelation) is the duo’s masterpiece.
Welch’s fourth album expands the duo approach of the previous two records – there are more outside musicians than on any other Welch record. Some of the songs have a rhythm section, and there’s other augmentation like fiddle and organ. Welch includes covers for this first time on Soul Journey, but paradoxically it’s also more autobiographical than anything she’d recorded previously; ‘No One Knows My Name’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’ presumably tell large pieces of her back-story.
Soul Journey is a less immersive experience than the brilliance of Time (The Revelator), but there’s a lot of strong material here. Opener ‘Look at Miss Ohio’ is one of Welch’s best-known tracks, later covered by Miranda Lambert. Welch writes extra lyrics for the traditional songs ‘Make Me A Pallet on Your Floor’ and ‘I Had A Real Good Mother & Father’, and makes them her own. The best stuff is at the end of Soul Journey – the delicate ‘I Made A Lover’s Prayer’ captures some of the same magic as ‘I Dream A Highway’. ‘Wrecking Ball’ is the biggest departure in Welch’s catalogue; with a solid back-beat and crunching guitar, it’s like a slice of 1970s classic rock, but it works brilliantly, telling of Welch’s college years as a “little Deadhead”. It showcases her brilliant lyric writing skills; “Look out boys, ’cause I’m a rollin’ stone” is an all time great opening line.
Soul Journey feels like a compilation after the immersive brilliance of Time (The Revelator), but it features some of Welch’s best songs all the same.
The Harrow and the Harvest
Welch took a long time to follow Soul Journey, scrapping several albums of material and releasing a light-hearted record with Rawlings acting as front-man. When a follow-up finally arrived, it was dour and low-key. Welch’s voice is deeper and more weathered, and The Harrow and the Harvest is closest in tone to the darkness of Hell Among the Yearlings. Welch and Rawlings aren’t augmented by any outside musicians, and songs like ‘Dark Turn of Mind’ and ‘The Way It Goes’ are bleak.
It’s the songs that look for hope among the darkness that are my favourites here. ‘Hard Times’ features the refrain; “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind”, and it’s a beacon of light from an artist who’s admitted she’s struggles with writing unless she’s completely miserable. ‘Down Along the Dixie Line’ is pretty, while songs like ‘Scarlet Town’ and ‘Six White Horses’ capture the old-time feel that Welch is so adept it.
Even though it doesn’t break much new ground, The Harrow and the Harvest measures up to Welch’s high standards, and as her only record of the decade it’s worth hearing.
Ten Best Gillian Welch Songs
I Dream a Highway
Red Clay Halo
I Made A Lover’s Prayer
By The Mark
Look at Miss Ohio
I’ll Fly Away (with Alison Krauss)
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Coen Brothers movie, set in the Great Depression, was filmed in sepia and featured a soundtrack of grassroots music from the period. While some of the songs are field recordings from the period, like Harry McClintock’s ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’, most are contemporary recordings of old songs. Gillian Welch served as the associate producer and contributed to two songs, and it’s very much a continuation of her exploration of early 20th century Americana on her first two solo records – T-Bone Burnett was the producer and primary instigator. The soundtrack was an integral part of the film – recorded before the film was shot – and was massively successful, going 8x platinum and topping the US charts.
As you’d expect from a soundtrack, it’s a mixed bag. While there’s a unity in era, there’s significant divergence between the serious songs and novelties like The Peasall Sisters’ unique vocals on ‘In The Highways’. Veteran Ralph Stanley shines on ‘O Death’ and ‘Angel Band’, but I’m most interested in the efforts of contemporary artists like Welch and Alison Krauss. Krauss’ take on the African-American spiritual ‘Down in the River to Pray’ is gorgeous, while Krauss and Welch collaborate on the lovely ‘I’ll Fly Away’. Emmylou Harris joins Krauss and Welch on ‘Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby’, a traditional lullaby that Welch and Burnett wrote extra lyrics for.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? was so successful that it’s effectively become a sampler to early 20th century American folk music, and it does a great job of summarising the era.
Dave Rawlings Machine
A Friend of a Friend
Rawlings never sang lead on a Gillian Welch record, instead playing his support roles beautifully. He provided guitar, harmony vocals, and co-wrote with Welch. Eventually the pair stock-piled 40 minutes of songs that suited Rawlings’ voice better, and his solo debut was released in 2009. Welch sings backing vocals, while Rawlings is also joined by Bright Eyes and members of the Old Crow Medicine Show and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. Rawlings is a less entrancing front-man than Welch; while Welch has a quiet gravitas, Rawlings’ Dylanesque yelp is better suited to lighter fare.
Along with five songs co-written with Welch, Rawlings features a song he co-wrote on Ryan Adams’ celebrated album Heartbreaker. ‘To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)’ is rollicking fun, as are originals like ‘How’s About You’. The highlight though, is the paired covers at the centre of the record – Conor Oberst’s ‘Method Acting’ segues into a lovely acoustic take on Neil Young’s ‘Cortez the Killer’.
Rawlings’ doesn’t excel as the focal point like he does as Welch’s second banana, but as a Welch fan it’s fun to see him step into the limelight on A Friend of a Friend.
Note: Rawlings has made two further albums that I haven’t caught up with:
- Nashville Obsolete (2015)
- Poor David’s Almanack (2017)