Bringing together just the right combination of songwriter and musician is a rarity. Words and sounds blend to become lines that turn into stories that touch on notes of old memories and hidden feelings – ones that bring smiles, ones that press old wounds. Gillian Welch has a gift for making music that seems to grasp this concept, with help from her partner, guitarist David Rawlings.
Their style combines elements of traditional bluegrass and Americana, resonating with the starkness of the Appalachian sound. And although the albums clearly say "Gillian Welch," the duo can't be separated; their sound is so intricately woven together you can't tell where one ends and the other begins.
Welch got her musical start in the early ‘90s while attending the Berklee School of Music in Boston for songwriting. There she began performing her own material, as well as traditional country and bluegrass songs, with fellow student Rawlings who was studying guitar.
They went through all the regular paces – small venues, open mic showcases – before heading out on their own across the country. One night in Nashville while opening for Peter Rowan, an important producer entered into their lives.
T-Bone Burnett happened to be in the audience. Immediately entranced by their sound, he aided them in their first record deal. That meeting would help to produce the hauntingly beautiful album, Revival. The album is full of the pair's barebones style, but also adds some full-bodied tracks featuring several of Nashville's legendary session musicians. Also to be noted, some tracks were recorded in mono, a sound that helped capture a bygone era of music, one they are seamlessly in tune with.
Since then, Welch and Rawlings have recorded five full-length albums, some EPs, singles and played with many celebrated musicians – Bright Eyes, Steve Earle, Ralph Stanley, the Decemberists. Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Solomon Burke are among those who have recorded their songs.
What's most key about their music, and what I think attracts so many other true talents to them, is that their songwriting is edgy, innovative and rife with dark reality.
Welch's songs are poignantly full of true life, where folks deal with the sadness of drug addiction, death and despair and where longing has replaced love. These are the stories of a rural America; still primitive, still scraping out existence even in the 21st century.
Be prepared, because it's not light listening, but it's a definite must-have. Welch's long-awaited and most recent album, The Harrow and The Harvest, released in 2011, has already been well received, bringing the duo to a pinnacle of creativity they had not yet reached. That almost seems like the impossible when you consider what they've already done is so outstanding. Hopefully, it just only gets better and better from here.