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Time reveals all for Gillian Welch

By Clarissa Sansone, September 2001

Gillian Welch knows the difference between old time music and bluegrass, and the difference between a music executive and a record man. She knows how to start her own record label, how to be an actress and, incidentally, how to write and sing songs that have earned her a Grammy nomination and the respect of music critics.

She is rather at a loss, however, when asked to describe the songs on her most recent album, "Time (The Revelator)."

"Time," recorded on Welch's newly created Acony label and produced by her longtime collaborator David Rawlings, follows 1996's "Revival" and 1998's "Hell Among the Yearlings." It comes in the wake of her appearances in the film "O Brother! Where Art Thou?," on the accompanying soundtrack album, and in the movie-inspired concert "Down from the Mountain."

"I don't have a very well-formed opinion of them as a whole," Welch says of her new songs.

"Most of the songs were written late last year and this year," she explains, which puts her still "too close" to the songs on "Time" for time to work its revelatory magic.

Or, judging from the recording process, the resonant, spare songs might dwell in a realm of their own.

"There's a tremendous number of first takes on this album," Welch says, pointing to "Elvis Presley Blues" and "I Dream a Highway" as examples. She refers to "I Dream a Highway," a slow, twisting musical exploration that runs nearly 15 minutes, as "an extreme first take."

"We were almost superstitious about it," Welch says, because the composition was more "a whole moment in time" than a song. "We didn't even talk about it until we recorded it," she says, but adds, "I wouldn't trade working on that (song) for anything."

As on "Hell Among the Yearlings," Welch and Rawlings are the only musicians on "Time." Where the former album was more an exercise in mountain music minimalism, however, the new material rings eerily evocative of a larger presence, as Welch points out: "Particularly on this recordÉpeople are literally hearing instruments that aren't there."

"People hear different things" in the two-person album, Welch says. She urges her fans to just "buy the album" and make their own discoveries listening to it, instead of reading a description of its arrangements.

Welch says within the songs is "incorporated aÉrock and roll sensibility," and that "much larger arrangements are continuously implied" in the songs, meaning that whatever the two musicians couldn't directly convey was sonically hinted at, with the intriguing result that the presence of only a pair of players belies what meets the ear.

On "Time," Welch and Rawlings "have the burden, or liberty, (of being) the whole band."

It's a "burden" the two have shared before, and stems from a longtime musical collaboration. Welch, a native of southern California, met Rawlings in the early nineties, when she attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. The two moved to Nashville in 1992.

Although Rawlings doesn't share a billing with Welch - "Time," in fact, marks the first time his photo has appeared on one of their albums - his contributions are instrumental, so to speak, to Welch's music. "He's fairly modest," Welch says, but "an indispensable part" of how she makes music.

Rawlings fills "an editorial capacity," says Welch, who credits his problem-solving skills as those of "a true editor."

"I typically begin a song and get as far as I can with them," Welch explains of her collaboration with him, "and then begins...a ping-pong match" of musical ideas. The creative dialogue continues throughout the songwriting process and into the studio, where Rawlings contributes opinions, a fair share of the picking and subtle, effective harmonies.

Welch has moved from straight acoustic storytelling to something more musically and lyrically circuitous on "Time," but traces of her bluegrass influences - so apparent on "Revival" and "Hell Among the Yearlings" - remain, in her banjo picking and on songs like "Red Clay Halo."

Welch was initially drawn to bluegrass because of "its rawness." "I was listening to really raw early rock-n-roll and...early punk," says Welch; when she first listened to the Stanley Brothers, she heard music that was "equally raw" and "unprettied up," but "the sound was ecstatic - the harmonies."

"My initial reaction," she goes on, "was a body reaction - it was a very deep reaction...which I'm guessing is the reaction that people are having to this ÔO Brother' stuff."

She is careful to point out, however, that the music of the movie's era was old time, not bluegrass: "Chronologically, the movie takes place before bluegrass," she explains.

Although the sound of bluegrass makes appearances on "Time," it was Ô the spirit of the Nashville Sound that was with Welch during the album's recording. The tracks were laid down in historic RCA Studio B in Nashville, which has seen the likes of Elvis and purveyors of the Nashville Sound - like Dottie West, Skeeter Davis and Dolly Parton - pass through. It had turned from a functioning studio into a more of a country music landmark for Nashville tourists, so Welch and Rawlings brought in their own equipment to get it up and running again.

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