One way of thinking about folk music is that everybody makes it. It’s the expression of a culture, any culture, in musical form. That’s a really broad definition. If we want to dial our understanding in a bit we could talk about North American folk music. Very quickly we’re invited into a remarkably rich and longstanding tradition that runs up from Doc Watson and Loretta Lynn to more modern acts like Damien Jurado, Neko Case and, of course, Gillian Welch.
Gillian Welch moves around inside this specifically North American tradition with great authority. Welch, with her musical and touring partner David Rawlings, have seen marked success, including several critically acclaimed LP’s, one of which—Time (The Revelator)—saw a Grammy nomination nod way back in 2001. Welch also famously applied her skill to the O Brother, Where art Thou? soundtrack of the same name as an associate producer and contributing artist.
Welch’s music is right at home in the more classical forms of the American folk genre. On Welch’s 2003 release Soul Journey the listener gets a sense for this mastery. Welch pries open the door with album opener “Look At Miss Ohio.” The story creaks and bends its way off the record in a way that’s haunting and relatable,
Oh me oh my oh, look at Miss Ohio
She’s a-running around with her rag-top down
She says I wanna do right but not right now
Gonna drive to Atlanta and live out this fantasy
Running around with the rag-top down
Yeah I wanna do right but not right now.
Had your arm around her shoulder, a regimental soldier
And mamma starts pushing that wedding gown
Yeah you wanna do right but not right now.
Fans of Welch will understand how her flare for storytelling fits perfectly inside her voice. This is one reason among many that she’s so believable. Welch executes genteel Southern nostalgia with incredible ease. This is apparent on Welch’s “Hard Times” from her latest LP The Harrow & The Harvest. Welch hushes things on this plaintive track singing,
Said it's a mean old world, heavy in need
That big machine is just a-picking up speed
They were supping on tears, they were supping on wine
We all get to heaven in our own sweet time
So come all you Asheville boys and turn up your old-time noise
And kick 'til the dust comes up from the cracks in the floor.
Welch and Rawlings have made a bit of a name for themselves in their insistence on touring by car rather than by more efficient means. In a recent interview, Welch speaks to this decision, which reveals aspects of her inspiration. “There was something we were finding increasingly dislocating about airplane travel”, says Welch, “It's really grounding to do all the travel in the car…The topography, culture, and language of this country figure prominently in our work. I mostly read American authors for this same reason. We even stopped taking I-40, which is the fastest way, and started spending more time on I-70, I-10, just moving around. I know it's part of this record [The Harrow & The Harvest], that we dispensed with the fastest route.” This idea, that dispensing with the fastest route might yield unexpected insight, certainly guides Welch’s work. So, in this sense she fits right in with the greats in their insistence that Folk takes time. And if you want to “get” it, you might as well just live it.
- John Scherer