How Gillian Welch Became The Standard-Bearer For Traditional Folk In The 21st Century

01.22.19 6 months ago

Henry Diltz

Over the course of a decade-spanning career, Gillian Welch has become synonymous with the gold standard in folk music. At 51, the legacy that Welch, and her musical partner Dave Rawlings (who both perform under the name Gillian Welch), have established is one of the finest contributions to the modern folk canon. Breaking out in 1996 with her Grammy-nominated debut, Revival, and continuing to flesh out her sparse, dark Appalachian sound on its quick 1998 follow-up, Hell Among The Yearlings, it was work as an associate producer on the surprise smash hit O Brother, Where Art Though in 2000 that catapulted Welch’s voice, style, and songwriting into pop culture and mainstream awareness, along with the continued success of the cult hit “Orphan Girl” off her T Bone Burnett-produced debut album.

After the film’s soundtrack went platinum and picked up the 2002 Grammy win for the coveted Album Of The Year prize, Welch became something of a fixture in the folk world, also receiving a nod from the Recording Academy for her third solo album, 2001’s Time (The Revelator). A lighter-sounding album released in 2003, Soul Journey, fared well before Welch and Rawlings took a foray into releasing music under Dave’s moniker, Dave Rawlings Machine, for several years before finally returning to release a Gillian Welch project in 2011. In the intervening years, the duo also toured and collaborated with Conor Oberst in 2007, further introducing their music to a younger audience who were primed for a folksy sound, and extremely receptive. In that vein, The Harrow & The Harvest was the first album from the pair I ever heard, it remains my personal favorite and, I’d argue, the easy peak of their discography to date.

Perhaps casting back at the landscape in 2011 will help explain why this album had so much resonance with young folk music fans like myself. That year was dominated by the success of Robin Pecknold/Fleet Foxes’ boundary-expanding Helplessness Blues and a quickly-rising new artist called Bon Iver, who had just released a self-titled album to much acclaim. These two indie stars led a charge of nu-folk excellence, and the millennial appreciation for the country and Americana influences of the past was just beginning to swell as Mumford & Son’s Sigh No More continued to climb the charts months and even years after its initial release. The climate was perfect for Welch, who was perceived at that point to be a veteran, to drop her most accessible album to date.

While early reviews had dismissed Welch’s Appalachian tales as “manufactured” because she grew up in Southern California, critics in the ’90s simply didn’t have the perspective to understand how much the simple music of the not-so-distant past would resonate with the drug-addled, technology-addicted cusp generation who came of age alongside the internet itself. The groundswell of support for this sound was not fabricated posturing, but longing personified — less a costume and more a mental vacation, a rejection of the onslaught of technology that would alter not just our personal lives, but the music industry itself just a few short years later.

Since The Harrow & The Harvest, Welch and Rawlings have shared one other new-ish release, Boots No 1: The Official Revival Bootleg, a collection of outtakes and lost demos that composed the hidden history of their musical partnership. That 2016 career-spanning collection led them to pursue another landmark that was completed late last year: Releasing their 2003 album, Soul Journey, on vinyl for the first time via Welch’s own label, Acony Records. But given the analog confines the duo work within, getting this music released in that format was something of a journey in itself.

Today, Welch and Rawlings also received their first Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings,” their contribution to the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Late last year, after the conclusion of another extensive tour, Welch took some time to speak candidly about her experiences in the music industry, the impact of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? on her career, the current state of folk music, and receiving literary honors for her songwriting. Read a condensed, edited version of our conversation below.

I had the chance to see you twice in 2018 at a couple of pretty iconic venues. First at the Hollywood Bowl and then later on in the tour at Red Rocks. I felt very lucky to see you guys at both of those different venues. From your perspective how has it been when you’re playing first for such large crowds, and how does that experience differ from when you’re touring on your own or touring as headliners?

Sometimes you can tell that people may not be as familiar with the material. Obviously, when we tour normally we don’t have anyone open for us, so people are only there to hear us. It means that it can be a pretty intense listening experience. Our headlining shows are usually pretty close to pin-drop quiet, or if they’re not, it’s because the [audience] is reacting so intensely. The show at Red Rocks, it seemed like between the Punch Brothers and our crowd, everybody was familiar with everybody. I guess that was technically a co-billing, so that makes sense. The evening at the Hollywood Bowl was a little different; that crowd was there to socialize and mingle and drink wine and we had a really rough night with the sound there. If you made me choose, I would definitely say ‘Oh my God, Red Rocks was the far superior performance from us.’

I enjoyed both of them! Do you have your own personal favorite venue or venues to perform at?

Well, there are really quite a few rooms that we love, and I’m happy to say we keep discovering other ones. We just played a room, The Orpheum in New Orleans this year — that was truly great and a beautiful room. We love The Ryman, which is probably the first room that would’ve gone on that list. It probably went on that list 25 years ago. When we opened for Buffalo Springfield when they reunited and we played The Wiltern for the first time, that was a great room. Usually, a room we love means we can hear great. It means there’s something about the room that is just such a great fit for the kind of music we play. Let’s talk about this for just one second. We play to the room. We don’t have in-ears in, we’re not hearing the monitor mix, we don’t even use monitors. Our experience is the gig every night, is the sound that’s happening in the room. It’s possible that the room we’re in is more important for us than most of the acts that are out there on the road.

What are some of the major ways the music industry has changed throughout your career?

In my world, digital is a constant assailant. Digital versus analog assaults me at all times. For years we’ve been using these beautiful high-fidelity analog consoles while touring, and over the last few years they’ve been disappearing and we go back in the rooms we love, and we show up a year or two later, and they’ve yanked out the analog console, for a digital one. The sounds Dave and I are making completely acoustically go into these microphones, and they’re being digitized before they come back out the speakers as sound. They’re being digitized needlessly. That has changed and it kind of bums me out.

The basic reason is space and convenience. It means that a soundman can keep a file of what happened last night and then go to the next place and just plug it in — it’s easier. Dave and I have always understood that ease of creation has jack all to do with quality. We don’t do anything the easiest way. We try to do stuff the best way. Sometimes, it’s the easiest way and that’s great, but most of the time it’s not and you just have to accept that. This is what I see happening in people recording their music, this huge pandemic move to digital. I would describe it as the easier way. Virtually, nobody thinks it sounds better. I’m actually pretty happy that I feel like we’ve finally come through the low point, and the great return of phonograph records is part of people saying ‘Wow, this really sounds better.’

You’re just releasing Soul Journey on vinyl for the first time. How does it feel to return to an album in that way many years after it was released? Is there’s a special significance for you to have a record out on vinyl?

You’re totally right. It’s really significant to us to finally have records on vinyl. Dave [Rawlings] and I both had the same sort of profound reaction to it, which was we finally felt like we really made records. We came along right in the dark days when vinyl had really just died. When we started putting out records, it wasn’t really an option. Our first two records actually came out on CD and cassette. Cassette was still hanging on, believe it or not. I hadn’t realized how moving it would be to finally be able to put The Harrow & The Harvest and Soul Journey on the shelf with our records, with the records that changed my life. Through our entire career, for 20 years, none of our records were there with the records I love. Finally, now when I’m leafing through the stuff I’ve been listening to this month, passing a John Hartford record or a Lead Belly record, and then the next one is our record, it makes me feel really, really good. It’s this final step.

Speaking of Dave, I think it’s hard to even discuss your music without bringing up your musical partner. What has it meant for your career to be able to form a bond like that with someone to the point that people really see this as part of the same entity?

The funny thing is we did officially become one entity when Harrow got nominated for a Grammy. They only sent us one pair of tickets because Gillian Welch was nominated. We had to tell them “Gillian Welch” is a band comprised of two people: David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. Then, we got four tickets. We are officially a band comprised of two people. But yeah, it’s really hard. If I were Dave, I’d be crazy by now with people not realizing his contribution. I don’t think I’d be able to take it. He doesn’t want to be front and center, and it’s all fine with him. I guess there aren’t that many writing teams these days and people don’t really understand what it would mean. It’s a very strange thing. Our writing together evolved really naturally because on a deep level, we both wanted the same thing. We both understood what the great and admirable songs were. At first, I’ll say he wanted to help make my songs as good as those songs, and then very quickly we were just writing the songs together. We’ve written a song every way we can.

I was first introduced to your work in 2011 when The Harrow & The Harvest came out. From there obviously, I was able to trace back through O Brother, Where Art Thou and Revelator and Revival, and sort of culminating my research in discovering how important “Orphan Girl” was for you and your eventual breakout. Given how you’ve worked for such a long time now and some of these songs and albums are from long ago, do you have a different relationship to those older albums or to a song like “Orphan Girl” at this point?

It’s funny. I think I’m a really harsh critic of myself. I’m definitely not one of those people who listens to their records for pleasure. Some artists actually do. When our first record, Revival, hit its 20th anniversary and we went back and we started listening to the original tapes, I was finally able to hear what was good about it. Not that I wasn’t proud of the songs, but somehow it was helpful. It doesn’t matter how much that first bootleg thing ever sells or anything. The experience of going back and putting it together and listening to those first sessions for our first record was a good experience, and there was more in it than I would’ve thought.

I’m in a really good place with what I’ll call the old songs right now. We’ve been throwing quite a few into the show. I really like playing them. Our voices have changed over the years and I think I might like the way we’re singing now better than ever. I don’t want to sound hokey but I really am grateful, because I didn’t mean to do this. I didn’t really mean to do anything. I just always did what I like. I’m very stubborn, very willful in my way and I don’t always think ahead, but luckily it’s turned out okay. My narrators or our narrators always had this kind of maturity to them, our songs were never sung by little girls. So now, I actually feel like I’ve grown into the songs. I find myself looking at the old songs and thinking that in some ways, they’re an even better fit now than they were when I wrote them when I was twenty-something.

I was looking at reviews of your past work and noticed the response often turned critical when you were covering older traditional songs instead of writing autobiographical material. Or sort of what you’re saying — when you were voicing something that maybe was from the past or the perspective of someone older. What do you think about the dynamics between honoring the long history of folk and contributing new songs to the cannon? I thought it was weird when critics were saying like ‘this doesn’t sound like her, this sounds like old songs from the folk tradition, because that’s always how the folk tradition has functioned! It struck me as a strange criticism that I saw it crop up a couple of times.

Right, it’s the whole point about folk, isn’t it? Folks keep singing it. It is a funny thing. To be fair, I never thought I sing traditional songs as well as I sing my own songs. Dave and I collected this opinion from our earliest days when we first started performing together. I’m gonna say in ’92 or ’93. We had this gig every Thursday night in a bar here in Nashville.. At that time, I only had three songs, so I would play one original song every hour. I’d throw in “Orphan Girl,” and “Patiently Waiting,” and one other song. It never failed that if people came up and talked to us afterward, out of the fifty folk songs I played they would always say “What was that one about the orphan girl?”

Dave and I just assumed that for some reason, I didn’t put enough of myself into the traditional songs. No one sings a song like the person who wrote it. No one, even if there are better singers. I always felt that there was something that the person who had brought it into being out of nothingness had some special connection to it that no one else had. As far as adding to the cannon, that’s the greatest thing, the highest praise. I want to contribute to the cannon. I want my art that has really no reason for existing to be useful to people. The purest reaction of someone saying ‘I feel like listening to some music now,’ and they go to their shelf, and if they put on my record that’s a great thing. If they’re sitting with their friends and they’re pulling out guitars and they’re all playing songs they love, and they play a song that Dave and I wrote, that’s the best you can hope for. Because it’s so pure. There’s no reason for it. It’s just for the pure joy of making music.

I wonder how that relates to you as far as O Brother, Where Art Thou, because this is a style of music that, generally, the people that love it, love it. We know the segments of people that love it, we sort of speak the same language; the things that are important to us are important to the people that we encounter. And yet a project like O Brother, Where Art Thou which went so explosively mainstream, where it’s a subculture getting recognized by the mainstream. I’m wondering what it felt like to be a part of that moment? You’re talking about how songs always have a special significance when they’re being sung by their creator, but I some of the versions of the traditional songs that you sing on O Brother, Where Art Thou, it’s really your version that touched mainstream culture. I wonder how that functions with regards to what you’re saying?

Interesting. You’re right. I get to experience that every night: When we sing “I’ll Fly Away” it’s people reacting to the version of “I’ll Fly Away” from O Brother, which is crazy. Again, I just feel so lucky that I get to sing this remarkable song. I wrote an extra verse for the damn movie because they needed it to be longer. I remember Joel calling me and saying ‘We wish this was longer.’ I’m like ‘Yeah, we all wish it was longer.’ He’s like ‘Could you just write a verse for it?’ I’m like ‘Sure.’ Let alone, “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” that people don’t even know I wrote — so yeah, that’s funny, too.

The weird thing about O Brother is that it’s just like my record collection come to life. I honestly think that’s the whole reason that T Bone brought me on as assistant producer; he knew what he wanted but he didn’t know how to bring it to life. I was deep enough in the bluegrass scene, in the old-time scene and the mountain scene, that I knew who was alive and doing it. The thing I’m happy about — and I feel kind of guilty about at the same time — is that soundtrack is my aesthetic. That was my weird version of bluegrass and old-time music.

And people liked it, and it was great. It was good to remember that some of these songs keep on building over decades. These were monster hits in 2000, but they were also monster blockbuster hit of the old-time era; they were hits and so they could be hits again.

I’m really happy. I think O Brother is great. It was made without foreknowledge of what a success it would be, so there were really no compromises made. It was just made as a contemporary take on this music. You just have to call it folk music. I know that, because I was there every damn day, there were no considerations being made. We made what we liked. I guess at the end of the day, that’s kind of what I’m proudest of, because we really did make that soundtrack from a completely artistic and musical place, and then to have it sell like ten million copies or whatever was just the great like ‘See, I told you this stuff was good!’

You’ve been nominated for many, many awards and won many awards including the Grammys, which I think for most musicians it’s seen as the pinnacle. Recently you were also the first musician to be awarded the Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture. Is there anything that you’re still really wanting to win or there’s a goal of yours in that realm?

Not really. Prizes are a dubious thing. It’s always nice to get recognized, but when I look at my favorite records that are so important to me, they didn’t win awards. It’s a very tricky thing because sometimes the thing that wins the award is the more obvious work and not the more lasting work. I really don’t worry about it too much and certainly don’t have a dream list of what I’d like to win. What I’d like to do is make another record that I think is my best work. It’s hard enough for Dave and I to put out work that we’re proud of, so I think I’ll settle for doing something that we’re proud of.

That’s actually very inspiring to me. Last question: Are there any contemporary country folk musicians that you are particularly impressed with or listening to at the moment?

The person that I’m interested in is what Molly Tuttle is doing. I think she has a tremendous sensitivity for the music and there’s something about her spirit, it has a gentleness and strength in it. I like her vibe and her musicality. I performed with her and got to hear her perform at the IBMAs in Raleigh just last month. She did my favorite thing of the night. She did a version of “Rain And Snow” that was really lovely. As far as songwriters, I don’t know. Who’s writing? I feel like the story song and the folk song is like a little bit forgotten right now, which makes me feel extra bad that it takes me so long between records because I feel like the world still really wants these songs, and I don’t see people writing them, which both makes me feel good and bad. I guess there just aren’t that many people foolish enough to try to write folk songs.

Soul Journey is out on vinyl now via Acony Records. Get it here.

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