Gillian Welch is one of the great musicians of our time. It is not because she is a technical virtuoso, or because she has great vocal range. It is because more than anyone else she taps into the great aching heart of American music.
Born in New York, raised in California, Ms. Welch went from playing drums in punk bands at UC Santa Cruz to having her musical life conquered by old country albums. She went back east and began studying songwriting at Berklee college of music in Boston, where she met her great musical collaborator, guitarist and producer Dave Rawlings.
Those old country songs became her musical language. She adopts much of that persona on stage, with the long cotton dresses, the languid perch over the guitar, the big Gibson dreadnought chugging away under her strum.
Yet Welch writes lyrics that are often less precisely narrative (and yet sometimes more explicit) than in many traditional songs. In the song “The Way It Will Be,” she and Rawlings sing in unison for much of the song about how “I lost you a while ago.” Yet there is no explanation of what happened, just a litany of haunting images of what the loss feels like: “I can’t say your name without a crow flying by” – “I’ve never been served anything that tasted so bad.”
Dave Rawlings’ guitar work has the same mixture of old and new characteristic of Welch’s songs. His clashing first notes on the song “Revelator” would never have been found on a Carter Family song. At the same time, he is playing these artful solos on a 1930’s Epiphone guitar, adapting licks from some of the great bluegrass guitarists.
Such a mixture of old and new could leave just a muddle. Instead, there is a focused energy to the songs, even when Welch and Rawlings play some songs at a pace that seems ridiculously slow. A huge part of that is the rock-solid timing of their playing, and an instinctive feel between them. You can hear on the album version of “The Way It Will Be” a quick bit of how they start many of their songs in concert. They stand there, staring at the floor, humming a snatch of the song, gently beating time on the body of their guitars, until suddenly, precisely together, the song ripples out.
Another key source of energy in these songs is God. Welch makes clear reference to God and Christ in many of her early songs. She has one beautiful meditation on the wounds of Christ, the song “By the Mark,” which speaks of the joy of the final resurrection, in which we will recognize the Lord “by the mark where the nails have been.” In another, “Rock of Ages,” Welch talks about the desire to meet her mother in heaven, and the power of the “gospel pages.”
Part of what God means in these songs is defined by eternity. If there is going to be a reckoning and a final judgment, then this has consequences for how we live now. One of the great fears in the song “I Had a Real Good Mother and Father” is not to live up to their example and thus “miss out on eternity.” So too in “Tear My Stillhouse Down” the narrator looks back on his life and realizes what a mess he has made. His advice is to “Tell all your children that Hell ain’t no dream.”
Sometimes God seems like small consolation. In one of the most desperately sad songs, “Annabelle,” the narrator has lost her daughter. Her comfort: “We cannot have all things that please us / no matter how we try / until we’ve all gone to Jesus / we can only wonder why.” Yet in one of the greatest of Welch’s early songs, “Caleb Meyer,” God seems more directly involved. Dave Rawlings’ guitar part rocks with frustration and anger, while the narrator, Nellie Kaye, tells about being attacked by Caleb. She cries out to God, and then suddenly finds a way to defend herself.
As time goes on in Welch’s recorded music, the turn to God is less explicit. On the most recent album, The Harrow and the Harvest, the most direct note is in the song “Tennessee,” where despite the fact that “they threw me out of Sunday school when I was nine” her hope is still “sweet heaven when I die.” Dave Rawlings has said that the album is “ten different kinds of sad,” and it is hard not to wonder whether the issue is that, without God, suffering is ultimately wasted. None of Welch’s religious songs offered cheap solutions, but they all contained some sense that justice and redemption await us. At one level, the fact that Welch is not hunting for redemption in these songs makes the emotion deeper. The question is whether, without God, her songwriting ends up with only one emotional note — depression.
But on a fall day, with the rain pouring down, there is no better music to have on. Here is a playlist (along with the album from which the song is taken) with some of the best of Welch and Rawlings, including their best songs with religious themes.
1. Caleb Meyer (Hell Among the Yearlings)
2. Annabelle (Revival)
3. Tear My Stillhouse Down (Revival)
4. Tennessee (The Harrow and the Harvest)
5. Hard Times (The Harrow and the Harvest)
6. I Had a Real Good Mother and Father (Soul Journey)
7. Rock of Ages (Hell Among the Yearlings)
8. The Way It Will Be (The Harrow and the Harvest)
9. Elvis Presley Blues (Time – The Revelator)
10. By the Mark (Revival)
11. Red Clay Halo (Time – The Revelator) – This song has perhaps the most famous use of a capo in acoustic guitar playing today. Watch Rawlings at 1:45.
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