Moving with ease from bluegrass to folk and from country to blues, Gillian Welch (pronounced with a hard”g–) has confounded those who like to place musicians in a tidy category. Her growing success as a singer-songwriter, however, is easy to understand. With her strong, clear voice and her honest, unadorned songs, Welch evokes the simple, traditional tunes emanating from the rural Appalachian region in the American Southeast. But while the inspiration for her songs is rooted in the high lonesome sound of early twentieth-century mountain music, Welch imbues her work with a timeless, genre-bending quality. Her song-writing partnership with David Rawlings, who accompanies Welch with vocals and guitar, as well as a fruitful relationship with legendary producer T-Bone Burnett, have yielded two successful albums and launched a career that promises to contribute as much as it borrows from the roots music tradition.
Born in 1968 in Los Angeles, California, Welch grew up with an appreciation for many kinds of music and an intimate knowledge of the songwriting craft. Her parents wrote music for the television program The Carol Burnett Show, and the family would occasionally break out their numerous instruments for impromptu sing-alongs. Welch began playing guitar at age eight, learning the music her parents listened to—standards from the 1940s and 1950s and pop hits from the 1960s and 1970s. As her own musical tastes developed, she found herself drawn to acoustic folk and alternative rock.
It wasn’t until Welch attended the University of California Santa Cruz (UC Santa Cruz) to study photography that she discovered her passion for bluegrass music. After her first exposure to this music, she realized not only that she liked the way it sounded, but that her voice and playing style were well suited to the genre. She recalled in an interview on the ARTISTdirect website: “I started devouring as much bluegrass as I could. The Stanley Brothers were at the top of the list along with Norman and Nancy Blake and the Delmore Brothers… I was attracted more to the darker stuff, the brother teams like the Blue Sky Boys.” Before graduating from UC Santa Cruz and while eagerly absorbing musical influences and playing in a cover band, Welch determined that music would be more than a hobby for her. In the late 1980s she enrolled at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. While listening to such alternative Boston groups as the Pixies and the Breeders, Welch was learning traditional country music—and writing her own material—to perform in local clubs. During her second year at Berklee she met David Rawlings; discovering a kindred approach to performing and songwriting, they began working together.
While still a student at Berklee, Welch traveled with her fellow students for the school’s annual trip to Nashville for pep talks and career advice from established artists
Moved to Nashville, TN, 1992; began performing in local clubs and writing music that would later be recorded by Emmylou Harris and the Nashville Bluegrass Band; signed with Almo Sounds, released Revival, 1996; released Hell among the Yearlings, 1998; contributed to several high-profile soundtracks and compilations including The Horse Whisperer soundtrack, 1998;Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons, 1999; and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, 2000; started own label, Acony Records, with David Rawlings, 2001.
Addresses:Management —DS Management, 1017 16th Avenue S., Nashville, TN 37212.Publicity— Jim Merlis, Big Hassle Media, New York, NY 10011, (212) 366-4492.Booking— Keith Case & Associates, 1025 17th Avenue S., Nashville, TN 37212, (615) 327-4646.Website —Gillian Welch Official Website:http://www.gillianwelch.com/home. html.
and producers. While known primarily as the home of mainstream, radio-friendly country music—which resides at the opposite end of the country spectrum from Welch’s style—Nashville struck Welch as a land of opportunity for practitioners of a wide range of roots music. In 1992, after graduating from Berklee, Welch moved with Rawlings to Music City to begin her slow-but-sure ascent to a recording contract. She adhered to a demanding schedule, participating in songwriters’ contests and open-mic competitions at local bars and clubs several nights a week. She developed a dedicated local following, though one of her first breakthroughs came at an event outside Nashville.
In 1993 Welch won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at the Merle Watson Memorial Festival in Wilkes-boro, North Carolina. Soon after, some of her songs were recorded by the Nashville Bluegrass Band and the brother-sister bluegrass duo Tim and Mollie O’Brien. In 1995 Emmylou Harris released her groundbreaking album Wrecking Ball, which featured Welch’s song “Orphan Girl.” After playing a set at Nashville’s Station Inn one night in the mid 1990s, Welch and Rawlings encountered Burnett, who expressed an interest in producing their work. Welch recalled in an ARTISTdirect interview: “I spent almost a year meeting with other producers, but it came back to T-Bone. I felt like he wanted to make the same first record that I wanted to make.” That debut, called Revival, was released to widespread critical acclaim in 1996.
Singing in her spare, mournful way, Welch tells stark, powerful stories about such things as the death of a child (“Annabelle”) and a bootlegger’s dying request for his still to be destroyed (“Tear My Stillhouse Down”). In a review of Revival on the Salon website, Lori Leibov-ich wrote that “Welch mesmerizes with her emotional range; she can sing with the vulnerability of a child, the sass of an adolescent, the dignity of an old woman or the flat-out sex appeal of a nightclub chanteuse…” High praise came from Emmylou Harris, whose appraisal of Revival appears on Welch’s website: “Gillian writes with what at first seems to be childlike simplicity, but on closer listening, you realize you are in the presence of an old soul, one who knows the blue highways of the heart…. It is a gift to all of us who need music to be more than just background noise.”
With assistance from Burnett, Welch achieved an old-fashioned, pared-down sound that, according to Michael McCall of the All Music Guide website, “could be lifted from some long lost Depression Era folk recording.” Using vintage equipment that had once been wielded by country legend Hank Williams, Welch deliberately avoided the clean, high-fidelity sound that is the hallmark of modern recordings, opting instead for what she felt was a richer, more authentic sound. Not typical fare for mainstream radio stations, Revival nonetheless built a strong following based primarily on the strength of Welch’s live shows and rave reviews in the press. The album’s success was capped off by a Grammy Award nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Artist. While Welch has expressed ambivalence about the “folk” label, she was quoted by Country.com as saying, “I just don’t feel like a folk singer.” Welch felt reassured by such past winners in that category as Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. “If they put them in as contemporary folk,” she suggested, “you know maybe I am contemporary folk.”
Two years later, again collaborating with Rawlings on the songwriting and performance end and with Burnett on the production end, Welch released Hell among the Yearlings. The title comes from an old fiddle tune that, like many such tunes, has multiple titles. The other titles for that tune—including “Trouble amongst the Bovine” and “Ox in the Mud” —made “Hell among the Yearlings” the obvious choice for the album’s title. While Revival is not exactly cheerful, Hell among the Yearlings goes even further into the somber, rustic traditions of the traditional music Welch admires. Beginning with “Caleb Meyer,” a song about a woman killing her attacker with a broken bottle, and including “One Morning,” about a woman who sees her son riding home from battle only to realize it is a lifeless body strapped to the horse, Hell among the Yearlings embraces the bleak aspects of life. The album’s spare instrumentation—generally consisting only of Rawlings on guitar and Welch playing banjo or guitar—emphasizes the melancholy beauty of Welch and Rawling’s two-part harmonies. While some critics questioned whether Welch had submerged too much of her own identity to achieve authentic recreations of an old-time sound, others praised her ability to tap into a rich vein of traditional country and bluegrass music and infuse it with her own modern sensibilities. That ability results in occasionally odd juxtapositions, like a song about drug addiction (“My Morphine”) featuring some good old-fashioned yodeling.
In the years following the release of Hell among the Yearlings, Welch worked with Rawlings on material for her next album while also contributing to several critically acclaimed compilations, including the soundtracks for The Horse Whisperer and O Brother, Where Art Thou? A highlight for Welch was being asked to sing on Clinch Mountain Country, a star-studded album made by her idol and biggest influence, bluegrass hero Ralph Stanley. In addition to their duet of the Carter Family song “Gold Watch and Chain,” the album features Stanley performing with Bob Dylan, George Jones, Dwight Yoakam, and Ricky Skaggs. Some observers have criticized Welch for her devotion to a musical tradition that is worlds away from her modern-day upbringing in Los Angeles. Others dismiss such concerns; as Daniel Durchholz asserted in a Wall of Sound review, “Welch has internalized this stuff, and her songs betray nary a hint of fakery or affectation.” Welch herself shrugs off such criticism, acknowledging to Tim Kenneally of Guitar Player that her fans care about her music, not where she was born. “We go to these bluegrass festivals,” Welch explains, “and I don’t get any grief. There, people say, ’Wow, I haven’t heard stuff like that since my granddad died.’”
In an effort to escape the hit-driven, highly corporate climate of the major record labels, Welch formed her own label with partner David Rawlings after leaving Almo Sounds when its parent company, Geffen, merged with Interscope in 1999. Acony Records, named after a flower, will issue Welch’s third album, slated for release in July of 2001. Acony will also reissue Welch’s first two albums.
Revival, Almo Sounds, 1996.
Hell among the Yearlings, Almo Sounds, 1998.
(Contributor) The Horse Whisperer (soundtrack), MCA, 1998.
(Contributor) Clinch Mountain Country (Ralph Stanley and others), Rebel, 1998.
(Contributor) Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (various artists), Almo Sounds, 1999.
(Contributor) O Brother, Where Art Thou? (soundtrack), Mercury, 2000.
(Contributor) Concerts for a Landmine Free World (various artists), Vanguard, 2001.
Billboard, July 4, 1998, p. 12.
Entertainment Weekly, July 24, 1998, p. 72.
Guitar Player, November 1996, p. 57.
Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2001.
Newsweek, July 15, 1996, p. 57.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 19, 2001).
“The Birth of a Crossover Star,” Salon, http://www.salon.com/ weekly/welchl. html (April 19, 2001).
“Gillian Welch,” ARTISTdirect, http://imusic.artistdirect.com/ showcase/contemporary/gillianwelch. html (April 19, 2001).
“Gillian Welch,” Country.com, http://www.country.com/gen/music/artist/gillian-welch.html (April 19, 2001).
“Gillian Welch: Hell among the Yearlings,” Wall of Sound, http://wallofsound.go.com/archive/reviews/stories/3651_ 74lndex. html (April 24, 2001).
Gillian Welch Official Website, http://www.gillianwelch.com/home.html (April 19, 2001).
Genre: Country, Folk
Best-selling album since 1990: Revival (1996)
Gillian Welch earned praise from several corners as she brought a sound and style from another era into the present. Claimed by blue-grass, country, alternative rock, and folk circles, Welch has carved out her own nook-and-cranny with understated songs that evoke strong images as she sings in her haunting lilt.
Hearing Welch (whose first name is pronounced with a hard "g") sing, it is somewhat of a revelation to learn that she did not grow up in the back hills of Appalachia but rather in West Los Angeles, the child of parents who wrote music as a team for The Carol Burnett Show. Her parents were her first musical influences and often led the family through sing-alongs of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and Irving Berlin standards, in addition to various pop music songs of the time. Welch was playing acoustic guitar and singing folk and pop rock by the time she was ten and learned firsthand about songwriting by watching her parents do their work. While attending the University of California at Santa Cruz to study photography, Welch began playing in a local band. She had developed an affinity for bluegrass, and was particularly fascinated by the rawness of the Stanley Brothers and the Delmore Brothers. Theirs was a high, lonesome sound that could be described as a pre-bluegrass or roots music, containing a blend of country music and the traditional songs brought over by the first European settlers in Appalachia.
After graduating from college, Welch decided to approach music professionally. During the late 1980s she switched coasts to attend Boston's reputable Berklee School of Music where she studied songwriting. In Boston, she began performing in local coffeehouses and clubs, developing her unique acoustic traditionalist sound that hearkens back to the late 1880s. Right before leaving the jazz-inclined Berklee, Welch met guitarist David Rawlings, and discovered in him a kindred spirit for the old-time country music of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and the tight two-part harmonies of traditional bluegrass. The duo began performing and honing their skills on the road. Welch wrote most of the material, played guitar, and sang, while Rawlings sang harmony and filled in on acoustic lead guitar.
The duo settled in Nashville, where producer T Bone Burnett—who had produced such major stars as Los Lobos, Counting Crows, and Elvis Costello—saw them play at the Station Inn and proposed that they make a record together. With Burnett producing, Welch's stark, primitive sound was captured on her first album, Revival (1996). The album's opening track, "Orphan Girl," sets the stage with a song about a kinless child looking hopefully into the afterlife for a reunion with family members. "Annabelle" also carries the spiritual theme of a hard life becoming easier in heaven. Another song, "Pass You By," is a rock-beating grinder about a favorite car that she and Rawlings used to tour in, and "Tear My Stillhouse Down" is a yarn about a moonshiner's dying request. The songs echo a time long past and spin yearning tales of everyday
people with the heartbreaking honesty of early blue-grass or depression-era music. Welch's music has strong country and folk influences but the arrangements and guitar styling of Rawlings, who at one point played in punk rock bands, skews the songs in their own unique direction. Aspects of punk rock are present in Welch's songs, not at all in the music, but rather in the rawness of the feeling.
Revival scored a Grammy Award nomination for Contemporary Folk, although Welch initially blanched at the "folk" label, preferring not to be pigeonholed. However, upon learning that Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan had both been labeled contemporary folk artists, she felt assured. With Burnett once again in the producer's role, they released her second album, Hell Among the Yearlings (1998). While Revival features the musical assistance of some of Nashville's finest artists such as guitarist James Burton, bassist Roy Huskey, and percussionists Jim Keltner and Buddy Harmon, this second album features only Huskey accompanying Rawlings and Welch. However, the esteemed bassist died unexpectedly and Hell Among the Yearlings became a true duet album. Welch plays either guitar or banjo to accompany her voice, while Rawlings adds the harmony and guitar fill-ins to create a batch of songs that give off an air of timelessness. This album goes deep into what is described as traditional music or music of the early Appalachian people, and it was recorded with the most basic engineering to preserve a more natural sound.
Always in pursuit of that "old-timey" sound, Welch and Rawlings searched Nashville for a studio in which to record their third album. They happened upon a relic of a room, a tourist attraction, located on Nashville's Music Row, called RCA Studio B, or as Nashville insiders call it, the house that Chet Atkins built. Studio B was a functional studio between the years of 1957 and 1977 and it is where Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, and many other stars from those eras recorded. Welch decided it was the perfect setting to record Time (The Revelator) (2001). Featured on the album is a tribute song to Welch's bluegrass favorites, the Stanley Brothers, titled "I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll." Time (The Revelator) was also Welch's first release on her own record label, Acony Records. The Acony Bell is a persevering flower that is usually the first to bloom in the spring.
Welch, with Rawlings, continued to tour extensively through Europe and the United States into the 2000s. She is a featured performer as part of a trio with Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris on the soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and has numerous other soundtrack credits. Welch has performed along with many other stars at the concerts sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation for a Landmine Free World.
Due to her urban California upbringing, more than one suspicious eye was cast in Welch's direction as she reproduced a clannish style of music that many felt belonged only in the hands of a select few. However, her music has gained the respect of old-time bluegrass critics and even hard-core enthusiasts of the raw sounds of Appalachia.
Revival (Almo Sounds, 1996); Hell among the Yearlings (Almo Sounds, 1998); Time (The Revelator) (Acony, 2001). Soundtracks: The Horse Whisperer (MCA, 1998); Hope Floats (RCA, 1998); O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Universal, 2000); Songcatcher (Vanguard, 2001).