Gillian Welch Returns with the Album of the Year by Derk Richardson Feb. 2012 from Acoustic Guitar

  • Posted by MattWales
  • December 11, 2011 9:48 AM PST

WHEN GILLIAN WELCH ISSUED her fifth album,The Harrow and the Harvest, in June 2011, eight years had passed since the release of its predecessor. As is the case with every album, starting with her 1996 debut, Revival, Welch gets singular billing as the recording artist. But as has always been the case, from Revival through 1998’s Hell Among the Yearlings, 2001’s Time (The Revelator), and 2003’s Soul Journey, the latest project is a collaboration through and through with her longtime partner David Rawlings. Together, Welch and Rawlings have created a unique body of work that is rooted in Southern musical traditions but defies easy definition beyond the broad category of Americana.

Welch has garnered two Grammy nominations in the Contemporary Folk genre, but her “folk music” embraces bluegrass, country, old-time Appalachian music, and early rock ’n’ roll. It’s an interesting mix for someone who was born in New York City in 1967 and spent a lot of time in California before meeting Rawlings at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the early 1980s. “I’d been singing folk music since I was a little kid,” Welch says, “and I had always gravitated toward acoustic records—folk and folk-rock: Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson. Then I went to Santa Cruz, and I bumped into bluegrass. I lived in a house with a mandolin player and deejay named Mike McKinley and had access to his record collection. That’s when I started hearing the Carter Family records, the Stanley Brothers records, the Monroe Brothers records, the Delmore Brothers records, and that’s really when it was all over. It was a freaky wild experience, because they were singing songs I’d grown up singing. I knew all the songs, but I’d never heard the records. When I heard how gritty and gnarly and beautiful and eviscerating they were, it was like your skin coming off. When I heard those bluegrass harmonies, I just lost my mind. And I also recognized that it was something I could do, which is a wonderful feeling. I thought, that’s how I play guitar, that’s what I do!” So that is what Welch has done ever since, and with ever more enthralling results after encountering Rawlings at a country band audition at Berklee.

Welch gained tremendous exposure when she sang two songs—“I’ll Fly Away” with Alison Krauss, and “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” with Krauss and Emmylou Harris—on the multiplatinum soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the 2001 Grammy winner for Album of the Year. Although she and Rawlings haven’t been exactly prolific—five Welch albums and one David Rawlings Machine album, 2009’s A Friend of a Friend, in the past 15 years—they have found a devoted audience for their finely crafted, often enigmatic songs, which are increasingly rooted in their observations of Southern life and typically probe the darkest shades of human experience.

Rawlings has characterized the temperament of The Harrow and the Harvest as “ten different kinds of sad.” Sure enough, the album begins in a foreboding place called “Scarlet Town,” moves through a “Dark Turn of Mind,” speculates on “The Way It Will Be” after “you took all the glory that you just couldn’t share,” tells how “Becky Johnson bought the farm, put a needle in her arm” in “The Way It Goes,” and gets barely brighter in “Tennessee” (“Your affront to my virtue was a touch too much / But you left a little twinkle in my eye”). Four more songs spin by on nothing more than the gossamer threads of Welch’s and Rawlings’s guitars, banjos, and close vocal harmonies until listeners are left puzzling the cryptic couplets that signal “The Way the Whole Thing Ends.”

This may be the stuff of niche music, but Welch’s slice of Americana includes everyone from Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and the late Solomon Burke (who all recorded Welch/Rawlings songs) to Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Colin Meloy (The Decemberists), Fleet Foxes, and Mumford and Sons, who’ve all become compatriots on the road.

“Dave and I felt like such freaks making our first record,” Welch recalled in a phone conversation from Vancouver this past summer, early in the North American tour to support the release of The Harrow and the Harvest. “I could not have felt more like a Martian back then. In the studio next to us is Céline Dion, and she’s cutting the vocal for the song for Titanic. That’s what was around us in the music world. But I’m really happy now. I feel like we have so many more comrades out here in the acoustic wilderness, and I’m so flattered and honored that a bunch of these people point to us and say that we’ve been inspirational to them. It’s a little weird to feel like veterans in the scene. I’m not really used to that, but I’ll take it. I feel like we’ve staked out some really good ground where now there are a lot of people. It’s kind of a party.”

In a 70-minute conversation, frequently punctuated by her easy, self-deprecating laugh, Welch talked about how the music she makes with Rawlings resonates with their audience, how she and Rawlings work together as songwriters and guitarists, why it took so long to come up with the ten songs that comprise The Harrow and the Harvest, and how they broke through “writer’s dissatisfaction” in hotel rooms across America.



When you played the Warfield in San Francisco in July, people seemed to hang on every note and every word.

WELCH We have the reputation, happily at this point, of being a band that you come to listen to. We’re not a party band, which is OK. Our shows are something different. Each person comes to have this musical experience, this moment with us, where they get to sink into our world for a little while. It’s this very unhurried world. It’s fairly quiet, it’s contemplative, but it can be quite panoramic. I think people think interesting thoughts at our shows, and they go rather deeply into some personal experience of their own. I’m really proud that our music seems to connect, because it’s not for everybody. But for the people that our music works for, it really gets down pretty deep in there.

Do your fans tell you how your music touches them?
WELCH I had a lot of interesting conversations with people after Time (The Revelator)came out. For some reason, that record combined for a lot of people with the strangeness they were feeling after 9/11. They said it was very comforting, and really, what more could you ask for as an artist?

What do you think the new songs are touching in your audience in 2011?
WELCH It’s funny, because I work in a pretty interior way. I wouldn’t call myself a social writer. I’m basically just trying to get through my own experiences. When we put a record there out into the world, it’s always interesting to see what the more macro view is of it. I’m getting a sense that the record seems to be addressing a sense of loss that people are feeling as Americans right now. They feel our star fading a bit. They see the economic hard times. The record deals a lot with time passing, and things changing and deteriorating and eroding. For a lot of people it’s more of a national commentary than I necessarily intended, but that’s a good thing. That’s a beautiful thing about art: it doesn’t make it any less true that I didn’t necessarily know it was in there. I’m often oblivious to the larger message of my own work. I’m too close to it. But Dave probably could have told you back in October, when most of these songs were getting written, that that feeling was in there.

Were these songs crafted over the entire interval between Soul Journey and The Harrow and the Harvest?
WELCH Absolutely not. I say that really explicitly because I’m so happy that they were not spread out over this huge chunk of time. There’s one old song, which is “The Way It Will Be.” It was the first song after Soul Journey that we recognized as our next thing. We wrote it and knew it had this new flavor. There was kind of a new narrator. Then [we] had to wait and wait and wait and wait and wait for the rest of the songs that would accompany it.

When did you write most of the songs for The Harrow and the Harvest?
WELCH The bulk of this record got written in the fall and winter of 2010. The switch really flipped in October, and it was disgust that finally did it. We were just so sick of not having a new record. It wasn’t that we had writer’s block, we had writer’s dissatisfaction, which I don’t think is the same thing.

Our songs walk this funny line between being modern and traditional, country and rock, confessional and narrative. They’re hard to pigeonhole. They’re not exactly bluegrass, they’re not exactly anything. It’s one of the things that holds our interest in this funny path that we’re on.

I guess every artist feels that no one else really does what they do, but I certainly feel like if we don’t do this, it’s not gonna exist anywhere. When we were kind of silent for those half dozen years, a couple of artist friends took me aside and said, as a way of being creative cheerleaders, “You just have to make another record, you just have to do it.” Conor Oberst basically said as much. He said, “The world is waiting, and they’re not gonna get it anywhere else, and they need it.” It meant a lot to me that he felt that way. Eventually all this encouragement ganged up on us, and we pushed through our dissatisfaction.

Was there one song that came along and opened the floodgates?
WELCH The song “Hard Times” felt like it was a bit of a linchpin on the record, that narrative about the man and his mule. Like most of the songs on the record, it’s about a certain kind of loss—and perseverance in the face of it.

In a way, it’s the most optimistic song on the album.
WELCH It kind of is. It’s very sad. We don’t know if the Camptown man works it out. But our narrator got into a place where there’s no way he’s gonna be stopped. I started the narrative in Nashville, and then Dave and I, in an effort to focus on the writing of this record, started just driving around the country, crisscrossing it back and forth. I think we made ten cross-country trips in the course of writing this record. Many of the songs were written in hotel rooms all around the United States. The chorus for “Hard Times” [“Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more”] was written in a hotel room in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. It was part of our reconnecting with the language and the history of this country. It’s one of the reasons we love driving. You never forget, when you drive around, to keep your eyes open and read the signs and historical markers. You read the things that are going by you, and you’re basically awash in poetry. The place names in this country are ridiculous.


How has the way you and Dave work on a song changed over time?
WELCH We’re more of an honest-to-god songwriting team now, fully metabolized. At the very beginning, I used to start all the songs, and Dave basically finished them. And we would work through the middle part together. That’s not always the case now. Sometimes Dave starts them, sometimes I finish them. Sometimes Dave writes the music, sometimes I write the music. Sometimes he works on the lyrics, sometimes I work on the lyrics. Every way you can write a song, we’ve done it, including the way we did “The Way the Whole Thing Ends.”

What was the process on that song?
WELCH I’d heard about songwriters literally sitting down and just singing the song, just making it up and spitting it out. For the first time ever, that’s what happened with “Ends.” We were sitting on the sofa and Dave started making up chords. He was kind of making fun of what an understated singer I am, and how I have a penchant for very simple melodies. So, almost as a joke, he started this melody that was incredibly simple. Then I started spontaneously saying words, almost nonsense words. The only other time I’d done that was the chorus for “Miss Ohio,” when I just kind of blathered out a little nursery rhyme, and that was it. We wrote most of “Ends” sitting there in 15 or 20 minutes, and we had so much fun with it. We wrote about 30 verses. Then we employed our own folk process and whittled it down, although not to verses that were the most linear or logical. We treated it like an old folk song, where you just sing the verses you like. They don’t even necessarily have to make sense. You just sing the ones you can remember, the ones you like, and the song has some kind of emotional truth to it because of that. The more you sing the verses, the more there seems to be an implied connection between them.

A bunch of the songs on this record were that way—we overwrote, and had four or five times too many verses. “Goes”—same thing, we just whittled them down the way 40 or 50 decades will sort out a folk song. It gives them an interesting quality, don’t you think? They’re almost like some of those songs on [Bob Dylan’s] The Basement Tapes. Maybe you don’t know exactly what the factual part of the story is, but you get the gist of it. I’ve always liked songs like that. I never want it to be spelled out.

One of my favorite surprising lyric fragments is, “You tell Musso, I’ll tell Frank” in “The Way It Goes.” It does sound like something from The Basement Tapes. Some people will recognize it as a reference to a legendary restaurant in Hollywood.
WELCH Yeah, in certain quarters that elicits a big laugh. I actually think this is our most humorous album, though some people think it’s super dark. Who says it can’t be dark and humorous at the same time? I’m a big supporter of gallows humor and wry humor. I love Woody Guthrie’s humor in the face of total personal dispossession. In the face of personal destruction, there’s plenty of room for humor.

Was there any song that was particularly challenging to finish, that you found yourselves working on for a long time?
WELCH “Tennessee” was pretty tricky. We logged a lot of hours and a lot of miles and a lot of states and a lot of hotel rooms working on that one. The real breakthrough with that one came once we were back in Nashville, in the studio. We still didn’t have it figured out completely when we tried to cut it in the studio. We got some passable versions, but it was really late at night, and Dave came in with a guitar and he said, “Listen to this.” He had completely recast the music. The cadences were the same, the melody was largely the same, but he had substantially reharmonized the thing and just richened the music by a ton. We both immediately recognized that although it was a wild change, we both liked it. So we went in the next day and cut it with this new music, and that was that.

How different was that from the way you’ve completed songs in the past?
WELCH We’re both really verbal people, and if something’s not working, we immediately look at the lyric, scrutinize it, tear it apart. We always assume that it’s the fault of the lyric. But lately we’ve been realizing that that’s not always the case. A lot of times the lyric is OK, and it’s the music that’s not pulling its weight. That was a bit of revelation on this record. That’s what happened with “Tennessee.” We were kind of down on it, we were about to throw it out, and Dave just completely revitalized the music, and then, boom, there it was.

How much do you change a song while recording different takes in the studio?
WELCH Most of the songs on this record are first or second takes. One of the things I’m so happy about is that we weren’t tight when we actually got around to recording this thing. It would be so easy to be scared or precious when you’ve gone so long between records. While the record doesn’t sound rollicking, it’s very spontaneous, for us. This is highly improvised stuff.

Does it ever throw you as a singer to have everything going on that Dave is doing over there?
WELCH No, Dave is a consummate soloist and accompanist, and when he’s playing, he’s focused, as far as I can tell, on two things: He’s focused at all times on the song—he’s playing the song, you know what I mean? Dave’s not just playing, he’s playing the song. And to say he’s listening to my vocal would be an understatement. In the 20 years we’ve been playing together, I don’t feel that Dave has ever once stepped on my vocal. As wild and mercurial and facile and just explosive as he can be, he’s incredibly sensitive.

The interweaving of your guitars and vocals, on the new record and in concert, seems more of one piece than ever before.
WELCH I agree. You know how there are people that pretty much spend 24 hours a day together, and when you ask them a question, one of them starts a sentence and the other one finishes it? We’ve gotten to that level, where musically, I hear Dave start a line and I finish it. Like on the guitars, I hear it more than ever as being completely symbiotic on this record. Dave would tell you that the way we play has developed because of the way I play guitar—if he didn’t play with me, he wouldn’t play the way he does.


I was surprised that on some songs I was reminded of the way Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia interacted on American Beauty or Workingman’s Dead.
WELCH I can hear that. There’s a greater quietness on this record, and we had greater confidence in the completeness of our duet sound. We were both comfortable playing less because we’re more confident that when you combine our two things, it’s a satisfying whole. Some of my guitar parts became more impressionistic on this album than they’ve ever been, because they’re completed by what Dave is doing. I grew up with this staunch sense of musical independence. Because I was playing guitar by myself in my bedroom, I had to be able to hold down the whole thing. Like so many singer-songwriters, my guitar was the whole sound. But we’ve truly accepted that we are a team, we’re a duet, and what matters is the sum.

The way you recorded The Harrow and the Harvest and the way you mic yourselves onstage really emphasizes the natural sound of your guitars.
WELCH I love and respect the sound of acoustic guitars, as does Dave, and at this point we’ve pretty much devoted our lives to that sound. Our entire studio in Nashville is designed to capture the sound of two guitars and two voices in a room, recorded live into microphones onto analog tape, because that’s the most beautiful way to record acoustic instruments. We’re an analog shop, stem to stern, all the way out the door.

I don’t care what the industry is doing. I just don’t care. People are talking about how it’s so much easier with digital now. Whoever said any part of the artistic process was supposed to be easy?

David Rawlings on the “Feel”

David Rawlings has been playing guitar and singing with Gillian Welch for nearly 30 years. After bonding at the Berklee College of Music, they moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1992. By the time they recorded Welch’s 1996 debut album, Revival, Rawlings had acquired the 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop that has been his main instrument ever since (for more about Rawlings’s Epiphone, see the March 2010 issue). While his distinct tone and phrasing are a huge part of the pair’s acoustic sound, the duo acquires much of its musical and emotional power from the empathetic way Rawlings entwines his Epiphone with Welch’s Gibson.

“It is a very specific feel that you only get from putting in a lot of time playing with someone,” he says. “You hear it with fiddle players and banjo players who’ve played together for a long time or who grew up together. You’ll hear a particular lilt or a particular rhythmic feeling, an emotion will be created that only those two people have. Some of that has crept into our playing.”

Although The Harrow and the Harvest is an intimate, relatively slow and quiet record, it rewards close listening with subtle variations in texture and tempo. “We’ve probably become more versatile in terms of feel and different kinds of songs,” Rawlings says. “We definitely play more dynamically now. There are songs on the new record that are very, very quiet, maybe quieter than anything we’ve done before, and that have a more stately feel. There have also been some songs that we’ve added over the years that have more tempo and more drive to them since we started. The way that we play a song like ‘I’ll Fly Away’ now is a sort of supercharged version of what we would have done on our first couple tours.”

Trust the Song to Remember Itself

When Gillian Welch feels a song coming on, she doesn’t run for her recorder. She relies on that old-fashioned hard drive: her own memory. But she counts on the song to cooperate in the effort, and she rarely records her early efforts on tape. “I’ve only done that when I wasn’t working well,” she says. “Usually I find that if a song is worth remembering, I can remember it. So I kind of leave it up to the song to save itself.”

Not that she doesn’t take notes now and then. “I have a spiral-bound notebook,” she says. “It’s top-bound, it’s college ruled, I work in pencil, and I’ve got a pretty good system at this point. I tried to work on the computer for a little while; it was a complete and utter failure. There was no room for all the subtleties of notation I do with alternate words and things. When I’m working well, each work sheet is a collage of words.”

What if she gets caught short-penciled, so to speak? “I heard an interview with Townes [Van Zandt],” Welch says, “and he was saying that he would just make up the whole song in the car—no paper, no anything—and then when he finally got it done, he would stop and call somebody, and he would sing it to them. That’s pretty good. I’ve actually done that. Long ago, out at a show, when I got the idea for ‘Stillhouse’ [“Tear My Stillhouse Down”], a song on our first record, Dave was at the show with me. I had the whole idea for the chorus, and so I turned to Dave and I basically shouted it into his ear, ‘Dave! When I die, tear my stillhouse down! Don’t let me forget, OK?’ He’s like, ‘OK.’ So, occasionally you have to resort to team effort, but I’m pretty good at remembering.”


  • ACOUSTIC GUITAR: 1956 Gibson J-50. “I’ve played it exclusively since 1998. I’ve recorded with some other guitars also, but it’s all over this record.”
  • BANJO: 1925 Vega Whyte Laydie.
  • AMPLIFICATION: “Neither of our guitars have ever had pickups. I don’t want to be the person who drills a hole in a guitar and puts a pickup in it.” Onstage, Welch plays guitar into a Shure SM57 microphone. In the studio, she sings into a Neumann M49 and plays guitar into 
    a Neumann M582.
  • STRINGS: D’Addario phosphor-bronze, medium gauge. “I started with lights at age eight and switched to mediums about the time I moved to Nashville, about 20 years ago.”
  • PICKS: “I have one tortoiseshell pick, and if I lose it I will sob uncontrollably. I’m just about to retire one, and I’m breaking in a new one. My tortoiseshell picks last me about seven years. I’m pretty easy on them. I get very attached to them. I still have the pick from Revelator. People give them to me because they know that I use them.”
  • CAPO: Kyser.