Music critic Ann Marlowe once noted that Freakwater had cornered the market on child-death songs. Gillian Welch’s debut album, Revival, boasts only one dead baby song; nonetheless, her breathtakingly austere evocations of rural culture, though not as attentive to politics of gender and class, bear more than a passing resemblance to those of principal Freakwater songwriter Catherine Irwin. And while Welch’s record has a more commercial feel than the rough-hewn, lo-fi music of her Louisville counterparts, it drinks just as deeply from the mountain wellspring of country music’s pre-commercial era.
Somewhat surprisingly, Welch’s portraits of the darker side of rural life aren’t based on firsthand experience. The 28-year-old performer grew up in relative comfort in West L.A., where her parents scored music for “The Carol Burnett Show” and sang Irving Berlin and Rodgers & Hart standards around the family piano. But, despite the fact that Welch wasn’t raised dirt poor in some East Tennessee hollow, her grasp of the emotional and spiritual reach of old-time country music is undeniable.
“I must just have a natural inclination toward the stuff,” she observed during a recent Nashville interview. “I’ve listened to a lot of pretty rural stuff, so I guess I had the groundwork — the sponge — to absorb it. From the very first time that I heard the Stanley Brothers, it rang a bell with me. I didn’t know it until I discovered bluegrass and Appalachian stuff that everything I liked was in that music, all rolled into one.”
The hauntingly soulful voices of Ralph and Carter Stanley — as well as the close harmony singing of the original Carter Family and brother duos like the Delmore Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys — are an obvious inspiration for Welch’s older-than-her-years vocals, especially when paired with those of her musical partner, David Rawlings. But Welch’s songs draw as much on the Celtic origins of Appalachian music as on its hillbilly roots. “David and I always go in for the more pitiful ballads,” confessed Welch, “the darker tunes that go back a long way and probably have their roots overseas.”
Indeed, songs such as “Orphan Girl” — which Emmylou Harris included on her Wrecking Ball album last year — as well as “Annabelle” and “Acony Bell”, could easily pass for popular English and Scottish ballads compiled by 19th-century collector Francis Child. Some of the more contemporary-sounding material on Revival also brings to mind Richard and Linda Thompson’s 1974 album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, perhaps the most exquisite synthesis of the traditional folk music of the British Isles and rock ever recorded. On “Only One and Only”, “One More Dollar” and “Tear My Stillhouse Down”, Welch wrings untold emotion out of her lyrics in much the same way that Linda Thompson’s stately vocals do on “The Little Beggar Girl” and “Has He Got a Friend For Me” from Bright Lights. And on the songs where the deft flatpicking of Rawlings and Welch is fired by the fretwork of guitar legend James Burton — who was almost certainly an influence on Richard Thompson — the effect is strikingly similar to Thompson’s modal excursions of the mid-’70s.
Welch and Rawlings met in the early ’90s while living in Boston, where Welch was enrolled at the Berklee School of Music. “We’d known each other a year,” she recalls, “but we’d never worked as a team until we moved down here in July of ’92 and started arranging traditional [country and bluegrass] tunes. We were pleased to discover that our voices sounded pretty good together. Dave was really never a singer before that, but he was kind enough to agree to working up my four songs and to slogging it out in the writers’ nights around town.”
The duo’s days of playing three to four open mic showcases a week — not to mention Welch’s job at a bed & breakfast in nearby Franklin — ended abruptly one night at the Station Inn in Nashville where, opening for Peter Rowan, they caught the ear of ubiquitous producer T Bone Burnett. “T Bone came back after our 20-minute set and said, ‘Gee, I’d love to make a record with you guys,’ ” remembers Welch. The relationship felt right from the beginning. “We talked to some other producers,” Welch admitted, “but just felt so at ease with him. He came and saw us live a couple more times, we had some dinner and just really hit it off.”
Welch’s account of working with Burnett at times takes on an almost dreamlike quality. For one thing, he recruited heady company — the aforementioned Burton on guitar, Roy Huskey Jr. on upright bass, Jim Keltner and Buddy Harmon on drums — to back Rawlings and Welch on the songs they didn’t record simply as a duo. But, as Welch is quick to point out, perhaps even more important than the presence of such luminaries was the way Burnett “always worked from the angle that he loved what he heard the first night — just Dave and myself. That was always the core.”
Preserving what he first heard at the Station Inn was obviously important to Burnett — so much so that, to ensure they re-created that sound, he suggested Welch and Rawlings record some of the album’s songs in mono. “The first day we got in the studio, they were wrestling with some of the older gear,” Welch recalled. “T Bone had wanted to get an old Wollensak like the kind that Hank [Williams Sr.] recorded on, but he tracked one down and the heads were funky so we ended up working with a slightly more modern machine.” The team’s inability to locate vintage equipment notwithstanding, they still went ahead and recorded four songs on Revival in mono. “It was an extraordinary experience,” Welch says. “That first week was really intense. It was just T Bone, Rik [Pekkonen], the engineer, and Dave and myself. We got so inside our little world. There was very little distance between our singing and playing. The sound was very immediate. It was so light and small.”
It was very important to Welch to work with a producer who was in tune with her and Rawlings musically. “I was always really afraid,” she said, “that if someone took Dave and I into the studio, just the two of us, just four elements — two voices, two guitars — that they would make that really big lush acoustic guitar sound where it fills up the spectrum so as to compensate for the fact that there’s very little going on. Dave and I always felt strongly that it should be tiny — that, if anything, it should go the other way and be contracted.”
Careerwise, things have opened up considerably since Welch and Rawlings started playing writers’ nights around Nashville a couple years ago. Revival was released April 9; the week before, the duo played the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. They’ll also be opening for Son Volt on a number of dates during the band’s spring and summer tour. As if that wasn’t enough, Welch was up until 5:30 a.m. the morning before our interview, picking and singing with Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and others after their gig at Green’s Grocery, an old-time country store in Leipers Fork, just outside of Nashville. Welch insists Clark is to blame for her lack of sleep, but who could blame him? She has the makings of a songwriters’ songwriter; couplets such as “The night came undone like a party dress / And fell at her feet in a beautiful mess,” from “Barroom Girls”, sound as if they were inspired by Clark’s muse herself.
Welch approaches her lyrics like someone who writes short fiction for a living: always striving to say more with less, finely honing miniatures that are fairly pregnant with meaning. She’s particularly fond of story songs, especially those with religious themes, or what she calls “gospel fodder”. “What else can happen in the third verse of a song?” she asked rhetorically. “Your main character can die or your main character can kill somebody or, if things are going really bad, you can always appeal to God. I’m not saying that it’s purely a storytelling thing, but, when you’re reaching for where a story can go, a spiritual side is always a good option. By the same token,” she added, “there’s no way that I could sing the songs if I thought, well, that’s a load of crap.”
That’s good, because Nashville has more churches, per capita, than any city in the United States. And yet, despite the town’s pervasive and, at times, suffocating, religiosity, Welch seems perfectly at home living in Music City. “I love it here,” she admitted. “I was much more at home here in a couple of weeks than I was in Boston. Boston was a big shock. I was living in a very urban area and it was very tough. Nashville was easy, except that I couldn’t understand some of the local dialects.”
If the timeless stories and melodies on Revival are any indication, Welch’s ear for the rhythms and cadences of rural speech and culture is adapting just fine. In fact, except for the past couple of Freakwater and Iris DeMent albums, Welch’s debut is about as distinctive and satisfying as Americana gets.