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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Gillian Welch in the Windy City

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I've loved Gillian Welch (and David Rawlings) from the day I first heard their exquisite debut album Revival. Now that they've finally released their first album in eight long years - The Harrow and the Harvest - I figured it might be time to revisit this MOJO encounter with two of the nicest, most grounded musicians I've ever met--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Detach yourself for a moment, and this here is 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 are 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 are 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!"


Hear the audio of this interview, and read more Gillian Welch articles, at Over 18,500 articles by the greatest writers from the finest rock publications of the last 50 years.

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