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Welch revives acoustic country

By Roy Kasten, September 1996

Gillian Welch is one of the most heralded new singers and writers in what is often awkwardly labeled "alternative" or "insurgent" country. While such a moniker suggests an arch, modern, or grungy approach to country, Welch's music is crystalline and bittersweet, acoustic and twangy.

Welch was born in 1968 and raised in West Los Angeles. Welch first discovered bluegrass and country, Monroe and the Delmore Brothers, in college. That love has translated into a beautiful and sincere first record that never loses the acoustic, but edgy sound of her influences.

Produced by T-Bone Burnett, "Revival" consistently recovers the spirit of vintage, weathered country traditions left in the dust by today's over-polished country stars. Labor and barroom ballads, moonshine stomps, and wise, unadorned gospel -Welch has a silky but brooding voice appropriate for her far-ranging originals. The album has received many accolades.

Though she may not play at the next "Marty Party," Emmylou Harris, the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Tim and Mollie O'Brien have all paid her tribute by recording her songs. And she will open for Mary-Chapin Carpenter on her upcoming tour.

CST talked to Gillian Welch on the phone, in the middle of her current tour. Welch and her guitarist and song writing partner David Rawlings were in a hotel in Durham, N.C., the afternoon before playing at the Durham Theater. She spoke with generosity and openness, her voice traced with an amiable southern accent. Rawlings was picking his guitar in the background.

CST: I'm amazed by the economy of your songs, but also how they hold together as short short stories.
GW: Well, that's our hope anyway.

CST: Lines like: "Last night's spangles and yesterday's pearls/Are the bright morning stars of the barroom girls" suggest just enough without explaining anything literally. And so a full story is born out of just a few lines and details. How important is narrative to you?
GW: Pretty important, most of my songs tell stories. But they're very small. If you take a song like "One More Dollar" there's a whole story there, even though it's so short.

CST: Right, and lines like "When the dice came out at the bar downtown/I rolled and I took my chances."
GW: And we assume he doesn't win. That one was a lot of work, just figuring out what to do with this guy. David and I sat down in a major session and tried to figure out how come he can't get home? It was like working on a detective story. What could keep him from just leaving? When we had a story line, we had to fit it into a four line verse, that was my job. I always responded to narrative in traditional music. It's just inherent in the ideas I get. My songs aren't just mood pieces. Well some of them are, but most have full characters and an implied situation. And what I want to do is bring the story out.

CST: Are you a reader of stories or poems? What kind of writers are you drawn to? Is it important to your work?
GW: I read novels, that's my favorite form. I don't read a lot of short stories. But I love James Agee, and "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" is one of the last books I read. And Zora Neale Hurston, Steinbeck, and Mark Twain. That's the work I'm most drawn to. But now reading is a luxury, to finish a whole book. With all the work and traveling I do, I go for the tried and true.

CST: I first heard of your music from Guy Clark. After a show in Chicago, he mentioned you as (someone) he admired and was listening to.What has this relationship with Guy meant to you?
GW: We've done a number of shows with him and sat around picking and swapping songs. We know a lot of the same songs. The last time he played a Woody Guthrie song about a fire.

CST: Your debut "Revival" is often compared to early commercial hillbilly music, performers like the Carter Family, but I also hear the singer songwriters of the '60's and '70's, Dylan of course, but also Mary McCaslin, Kate Wolf, Jim Ringer, not to mention the Texas troubadour school of Van Zandt and Hancock, as well as Eric Andersen, who's "Dusty Box Car Walls" you played beautifully in Chicago. How does your music relate to this later singer songwriter tradition? Where did you learn the Andersen song?
GW: I learned it from a mandolin player in Michigan. I hadn't heard of Eric Andersen. I heard his record only later when we compared our version to his to see how close it was. I listen to Dylan and Van Zandt, a lot. I can't say how important Dylan is to my work. Tim O' Brien just had a release party for his new CD of Dylan songs. Everyone had to play a Dylan cover. I played "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine," which I learned the night before. I like the more mystical Dylan. David played "Joey." David said it was the only chance he'd get to play a 14-minute Dylan song.

CST: So you wouldn't give up the stage for David to sing an acappella "Joey"?
GW: Not acappella.

CST: Tribute albums are very popular these days. If you could sing any song on any tribute record, what would it be?
GW: We could do a whole Townes album. We play "Snowin on Raton," "Tecumseh Valley," "Pancho and Lefty," and "Loretta." We could do a whole set of Townes songs. And Dylan. We could do a Neil Young set; we play those songs a lot.

CST: One of the things that impressed me about the show in Chicago is how the audience responded to songs that are so foreign to their way of life. How is it an original gospel song like "By the Marks" can touch people so, given our mostly secular, 21st century culture?
GW: The same reason I got drawn in... I wasn't raised a Baptist Church goer. But gospel is a beautiful musical form with lovely language. There's not a big difference between the audiences in Chicago and North Carolina. It's possible people in North Carolina know more of the traditional music. After a show they'll come up and say "I haven't heard singing like that since I was over at my uncle's house years ago." But I'm glad the Chicago audience didn't find "By the Marks" shocking. When we opened for Son Volt, I was worried the audience might be a bit shocked by the hard-core songs.

CST: We're nearly out of time. Can you tell me about your future projects?
GW: Touring all over creation, writing whenever possible. We're planning an album for next year. It's too early to tell what it'll be like, but (Welch laughs a little) I can say all the new songs are in minor keys.