The release of Boots No. 1: The Official Revival Bootleg prompts me to share this MOJO interview with Welch and David Rawlings from December 1997, plus (below) an Uncut review of the very fine Soul Journey from August 2003…
DETACH YOURSELF for a moment and this here’s a pretty rum scene. A raw, callow-looking couple straight out of a Depression-era Walker Evans pic are singing plaintive mountain songs in a bar in, of all places, Chicago – not commonly renowned as a bluegrass town, to my knowledge, even if it is home to Freakwater. They’re doing it, moreover, to the wild applause of the sort of folks who wear combat boots and dye their hair, most of whom seem to know these songs – the song about the V-8, the song about “the dead baby” – by heart and only want more of what the lanky girl and bony boy do so very, very well.
Not only do the couple’s voices blend superbly – the girl’s stark, vibratoless alto shadowed by the boy’s soft baritone – but their guitars, a 1935 Epiphone for the boy and a big reddish-brown Guild for the girl, also intertwine with unearthly neatness. They sing beautiful, chilling songs like ‘By The Mark’ and ‘Orphan Girl’ and ‘One More Dollar’ and the place is simply transfixed. They rev it up a little for ‘Pass You By’ and ‘Tear My Stillhouse Down’ and the effect is just the same.
The girl is called Gillian Welch, the boy David Rawlings, and together they’re responsible, by almost universal critical consent, for the outstanding country debut of 1996. Produced in Los Angeles by T-Bone Burnett, Revival features legends like James Burton and Jim Keltner, but mostly it is just Gillian (hard G) and David, performing quietly together as they do onstage tonight. Since its release last spring, Revival has garnered the duo across-the-board adulation and taken them all the way from the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, where they live, to the Purcell Room in London. At a time when the profile of bluegrass in America has never been higher – when an Alison Krauss can make the Top 20 Album chart and you can’t move for summer bluegrass festivals – they are becoming one very hot property.
The pair first met in 1989 while auditioning for a country band at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, where both were studying. Welch was the adopted daughter of Hollywood television composers, Rawlings a Rhode Island native who’d come comparatively late to the guitar in 1986.
“We both passed the audition,” recalls Welch. “Mainly we played Bob Wills and Buck Owens stuff in the band, but sometimes we’d play a little recreational bluegrass. It wasn’t until later that Dave and I first sang together, just the two of us. We started doing traditional tunes and realised that our voices together sounded okay. Especially as it seems to be a little less common in bluegrass to have the lead on top with a baritone harmony below – you’re a little more used to hearing lead with a tenor harmony on top. It meant that hard as we tried to copy a Stanley Brothers song, it always ended up sounding different.”
A move to Nashville in 1993 was based on the pragmatic decision to reside in a music town. “I’d lived in the Bay Area,” Welch notes, “so I had a feel for what it would be like to stay in a non-industry city and try to come up through the local scene. I’m definitely glad we went to Nashville. It’s been a good place for us.”
The first break came with a writing deal at Almo-Irving, leading in turn to Welch’s signing to Almo Sounds, the post-A&M label formed by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss in 1994. (Welch signed as a solo act for the simple reason that it’s a good deal harder to market a duo.)
“I did an in-person audition for Jerry Moss in the summer of ‘94,” says Welch. “Flew to LA and sat in his office and sang. I knew things were going well when he was singing along to Orphan Girl. And then we made the record about a year later. Didn’t meet Herb until a bit further down the road, although he and Jerry came to see us play at this real neighbourhoody bluegrass dive in Nashville called the Station Inn.”
The latter venue was also where T-Bone Burnett caught the duo the first time, offering his services as a producer should they ever need one. “We talked to nine other producers after we signed our deal,” says Rawlings, “but we kept coming back to T-Bone, because that was who we felt the most in tune with.”
In the end there wasn’t a whole lot of production to be done on the record, though the duo gives full credit to Burnett for adding just enough contemporary feel to the arrangements to rescue it from the cobwebs of Carter Family arcana. The dragging rockabilly groove of ‘Pass You By’ and the spooky Patsy Cline-meets-Cowboy-Junkies feel of ‘Paper Wings’ are certainly two of the album’s highlights.
“We started with the arrangements Dave and I had been playing and recording them live to mono,” says Welch. “Did about a week of that, and then brought in Jim Keltner and [bassist] Armando Campean, plus James Burton on… other stringed things! I feel like T-Bone kind of pushed us to experiment somewhat. We tried some wackier stuff, and then most of it got pared down again.”
The resulting album has been a priceless gift to citybillies searching desperately for some compromise between Alan Jackson and Will Oldham: far from the glitzy big-hair mainstream but not too twistedly outré for the traditionalists. Do they see themselves in any way as part of the fabled “alternative country” scene?
“We’re probably over on one edge of it,” says Welch. “If there’s such a thing as a spectrum…”
“But when people say to us, ‘Don’t you feel oppressed in Nashville?’, we’re like, ‘Well, not really’!”
Is it not ironic – some have even suggested disingenuous – that a couple of middle-class Berklee graduates are reviving stark gospel tunes and murder ballads while Nashville slides ever nearer to Vegas schlock?
Rawlings, who has doubtless been asked this question before, gives it some serious reflection.
“I tend to think that this kind of music is… is, y’know, art. And I think you can make art out of it if you love it. In the ‘60s it was the exact same thing – the people who played folk music weren’t people from the backwoods. But if you really want to authenticate it in some way, Gill was singing Woody Guthrie’s ‘Ramblin’ Boy’ at eight years old! And I’ve spent quite a lot of time outdoors! Doing rural things!”
GILLIAN WELCH, with her hard ‘G’, is indisputably a Good Thing. Tall and slightly gawky, decidedly non-photogenic, Gillian gives hope to all of us who contend that talent should triumph over Nu-Nashville cuteness. No less than revered Ralph Stanley, Gillian – along with paramour/accomplice David Rawlings – deserved the newgrass shots-in-the-arm that were O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Down In The Mountain.
I saw Gill ‘n’ Dave just when they were setting off on their scholarly alt.bluegrass path in early 1997. They were a match made in heaven, Dave’s soft tenor exquisitely shadowing Gillian’s stark, vibrato-less alto as their guitars – a 1935 Epiphone for him, a big reddish-brown Guild for her – intertwined. Backstage they struck me as two of the most decent, honourable – and super-talented – musicians I’ve ever encountered. More power to their ascetic Appalachian shtick, said I.
Of course, back then there were mutterings about the provenance of these blue-ridge ballads of orphans and Walker Evans hillbillies. Wasn’t Gillian Johnny Carson’s daughter or something? Authenticist baloney. If music had to be sociologically correct we’d never have had Tom Waits, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, Prince and innumerable others. Rock’s biggest pitfall is the delusion that it should be a transparent medium for a singer’s ‘identity’ (whatever that is). Which is why musicians conflate their fame with their self-intoxication and fuck up so badly.
Gillian Welch doesn’t pretend she’s some Alabama miner’s daughter. She just loves this music, studies and inhabits it, revives it in the most caring and compelling way. How great those first two Almo records were: Is there a better alt.country song than ‘One More Dollar’ (Revival)? Did A.P. Carter ever write a more moving ballad than ‘One Morning’ (Hell Among The Yearlings)?
Which was why I felt the teensiest bit let down by Gillian’s post-Almo Time (The Revelator) . To me it felt like Gill ‘n’ Dave were striving to move beyond their old-timey scholarship – commendable in itself – and not quite making it. Gill’s front-parlour DIY banjo playing was nice but the songs simply weren’t special enough. Not as special, at any rate, as ‘Orphan Girl’, ‘Pass You By’, ‘My Morphine’.
Which is why it gives me so much pleasure to report that Soul Journey is a highly satisfying bridge between the log-cabin museum pieces of Revival or Hell Among The Yearlings and a more rockin’, Basement Tapes-ish Americana. Of the ten tracks, at least two (‘No One Knows My Name’, ‘I Had A Real Good Mother And Father’) are dependably stoical acoustic statements of sorrow and orphanhood. (‘No One Knows…’ is Welch directly addressing the small matter of her own adoption.) Along with ‘One Little Song’ and ‘Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor’, ‘I Had A Real Good Mother And Father’ also gives us the previously-unheard sound of Welch performing without Rawlings or anyone else – just the gal and her guitar, recorded at home in Nashville.
The flipside of Soul Journey is a clutch of songs (‘Lowlands’, ‘Wrecking Ball’) that feature a soup of scrunched electric guitars, loping Richard Manuel drums, scraping Scarlet Rivera fiddle and muted Garth Hudson/Al Kooper clapboard-Baptist organ. The drumming on the album is by Welch and Rawlings themselves, and very Manuel-esque it is too. Among the other players helping out: Son Volt bassist Jim Boquist, dobro wizard Greg Leisz, fiddler Ketch Secor and guitarist Mark Ambrose.
‘Wrecking Ball’, which closes the album and has nowt to do with the Emmylou Harris song of the same name, is just terrific: a very Dylan-ish piece of reminiscence looking back on life as ‘a little Deadhead’, no less. Did Gillian ‘play bass under a pseudonym’? Did she meet a ‘lovesick daughter in the San Joaquin’? The song is possibly more autobiographical than ‘Miner’s Refrain’ or ‘Caleb Meyer’, for what that is worth. Almost as good is the spare, thuddy ‘Lowlands’, which is more Neil than Bob, Harvest to ‘Wrecking Ball’’s Basement Tapes/Rolling Thunder hybrid.
If Gill isn’t delving into her own past or channelling Depression-era orphans, you can usually find her running around with good-time boys and gals. The sauntering, dobro-licked ‘Look At Miss Ohio’ and the blithe fatigue of ‘Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor’ – the album’s first two tracks – set this tone for Soul Journey.
Similarly occupying the middle ground between the family-bible bereavement of ‘I Had A Real Good Mother And Father’ and the electric tie-dye sweep of ‘Wrecking Ball’ are the can’t-go-home-again lament that is ‘Wayside/Back In Time’ and the morose ‘One Monkey’ – the latter the darkest patch on what Welch herself rightly regards as a fairly sunny soundscape. “I wish I were in Frisco with a brand new pair of shoes,” she sings wonderfully on ‘Wayside’, “[but] I’m sitting here in Nashville with Norman’s Nashville blues.” Whoever Norman is…
Soul Journey‘s one unarguable masterpiece is the penultimate ‘I Made A Lover’s Prayer’, possibly the most perfect thing Gill ‘n’ Dave have ever created. It’s so simple, so unadorned, so dreamily lovely that I can barely find words to describe it. Some braided guitar lines, some words about a beloved boy, a puff or two on a harmonica – all combining to make a mood that’s almost divine. Otis Redding eat your heart out: Soul Journey is worth buying for ‘Prayer’ alone.
Loose and laid-back, Soul Journey is a porchlight songbook of a record, a close-to-perfect soundtrack for a country summer. Get on board without further ado.