Music

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

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.

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