Make you Wanna Hollar: Gillian Welch

The best time to listen to Gillian Welch is when you’re a passenger on a road trip, so you can stare at the countryside as it drifts by. Or when you’re floating in and out of sleep after a long hike on a summer afternoon, and the breeze picks up. Or when you’re alone, thinking about the things you’ve done wrong. Welch has that old-timey sound, reminiscent of Appalachia and the Carter Family, though she grew up in Los Angeles and is in her mid-40s. She and her musical partner, Dave Rawlings, released their first album, Revival, in 1996, but it was in 2001 that Welch entered mainstream pop-culture awareness with her contributions to the soundtrack of the Coen brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (in which she also has a cameo). In 2011, eight years after their fourth album, Soul Journey, Welch and Rawlings released The Harrow & the Harvest, for which they are now touring. Santa Fe fans finally get to see them play on Monday, June 4, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.

Welch doesn’t participate in many media interviews, and Pasatiempo was unable to talk to her. In considering her blanket refusal, it might be instructive to consult critical response to her work, which has ranged from effusive and enthusiastic to suspicious and hostile. While many people praise her emotional depth and authenticity, others have accused her of latching onto a genre of culturally based music that doesn’t belong to her. That latter criticism, however, could be—and often has been—leveled at the likes of Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Kinky Friedman, and other songwriters, poets, playwrights, or novelists who dare to write through the eyes and experience of others.

Listening to Welch, you would be hard-pressed to imagine her singing in some other style. Mountain country suits her. If you didn’t know she didn’t grow up in Tennessee, it wouldn’t cross your mind to question her street cred. Welch has been nominated for four Grammy Awards besides the Grammy she won in 2002 for best country vocal collaboration on the O Brother soundtrack, but she doesn’t resemble a pop star or celebrity. Perhaps her aversion to media interviews is an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of a public lifestyle. She hints at this in “Everything Is Free,” the penultimate track on 2001’s Time (The Revelator), in which she seems to say that it’s easy to exploit musicians because they’d play for free if no one was paying. However, she makes it clear that she owns what she does, and she can take it away if she chooses: “Every day I wake up/Humming a song/But I don’t need to run around/I just stay home/And sing a little love song/My love, to myself/If there’s something that you want to hear/you can sing it yourself/’Cause everything is free now/that’s what I said/no one’s got to listen to/the words in my head.”

Time (The Revelator) also features “I Dream a Highway,” a nearly 15-minute song of longing, and “Elvis Presley Blues,” Welch and Rawlings’ homage to the King of Rock and Roll that lifts him from the kitschy realm of white bellbottoms and velvet paintings and places him where he belongs: in the land of rebels, as a country kid who broke all the rules. “Put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air/And he shook it like a chorus girl/And he shook it like a Harlem Queen/He shook it like a midnight rambler, baby/Like you never seen, like you never seen.”

Welch and Rawlings met at Berklee College of Music in Boston. They moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1992 and began performing as a duo. Though they are known simply as “Gillian Welch,” Rawlings’ contribution is more than a whisper and nothing like an echo. Their voices blend so seamlessly that it’s often difficult to tell that two people are singing, but he provides an elemental richness against the stripped-down instrumentation that is the hallmark of the old-timey sound. Welch and Rawlings are particularly strong lyricists. “Caleb Myer,” on the melodious and dark Hell Among the Yearlings, is a story-song about a girl who is raped by a neighbor and kills him in self-defense. The story takes place in the “hollarin’ pines,” and it is a timeless tale of sudden violation and violence and the seething anger that follows: “Caleb Myer, your ghost is gonna/Wear them rattlin’ chains/But when you go to sleep at night/Don’t you call my name,” Welch sings in the chorus. Though not all of the duo’s songs are sad, all have a serious tone. Soul Journey has some relatively lighthearted moments, as in “Look at Miss Ohio,” about a girl trying to figure out her future, and “Wrecking Ball,” a bluesy tune about the folly and pain of young adulthood, including following the Grateful Dead and smoking too much pot. The Harrow & the Harvest is forcefully somber. Welch spells out her outlook on the second track, “Dark Turn of Mind.” “Take me and love me if you want me/Don’t ever treat me unkind/’Cause I had that trouble already/And it left me with a dark turn of mind/And leave me if I’m feeling too lonely/Full as the fruit on the vine/You know some girls are bright as the morning/And some have a dark turn of mind.”

Many of the songs on the new album are lamentations of lost friendships and the way life continues even in the face of tragedy and time. In a trio of songs spaced throughout the album—“The Way It Will Be,” “The Way It Goes,” and “The Way the Whole Thing Ends”—Welch seems to take a stand against being treated badly, preferring to let other people face the consequences of their actions and the loss of her friendship. But her penchant for singing in persona makes it impossible to gauge whether the lyrics are coming from personal experience. And it doesn’t matter. They resonate with listeners, so they’re based in somebody’s experience.

The city girl is at home in the country, and she’s not making any apologies. “Momma’s in the beauty parlor/And Daddy’s in the baseball pool,” she sings. “Sister’s in the drive-in movie/Brother’s in the old high school/Now here you come alone and crying/Once, you know, you were my friend/That’s the way the cornbread crumbles/That’s the way the whole thing ends.”


This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 06/01/2012