Two acoustic guitars are playing sparse repeated figures while a broken- hearted singer cries out grim tales of forlorn lovers, orphans, and losers slowly drinking themselves to death, while praying for the deathbed salvation that they fear will evade them. The singers are dressed down, in vintage thrift-store clothing. No belly buttons or backup singers in sight. It's an unlikely scenario for a modern musical career, but it's the path Gillian Welch and her partner and co-conspirator David Rawlings have taken to become one of the most distinctive acts on the alt.country and bluegrass circuit. Revival, their 1996 debut for the now-defunct Almo label -- recently reissued on their own Acony imprint -- was a testament to the stark beauty of musicmaking pared down to essentials. The album was nominated for a Best Traditional Folk Performance Grammy; critics and peers hailed them as the saviors of old-time country music. Then came Welch's participation in the multi-million-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
Welch is understandably reticent when it comes to the subject of the O Brother phenomenon -- it tends to dominate her interviews -- but she carried on with her charm and good grace intact. "T-Bone Burnett [the album's producer] brought me on board while the project was still in the formative stages," Welch said from her Nashville office, where she and Rawlings were planning the logistics of the tour that will bring them to the Fillmore on June 28 and 29. "Together we assembled the players and the songs, and I was there for ninety percent of the sessions. It was a very hands-on process, and the music was recorded before the shooting started, which shows how important it was to the film. We had a lot of time, which was a real luxury. Nobody knew it was going to make so much money, but the biggest benefit in my eyes was that it's made people aware of a whole community of artists that are keeping traditional acoustic music alive."
Another unexpected benefit of the album, although Welch is too modest to acknowledge it, was the fact that it gave her career a significant boost, making her the reigning queen of the alt.country scene. Not too bad for an artist who wasn't even sure she wanted to be a performer.
"In high school, I played electric guitar, bass, and drums in a few garage bands that thankfully stayed in the garage," Welch said, with her characteristic blend of modesty and irony. "I'd also been playing acoustic guitar and singing folk music, but I was too shy to sing in public and I never thought there was a way I could play acoustic music for a living. My image of a musician was a chick in a big-hair band with a bunch of synthesizers."
That vision faded when Welch moved to the Bay Area in the late '80s after finishing college at UC Santa Cruz. "When I got to know the Bay Area bluegrass scene and started attending Strawberry [a yearly bluegrass and oldtime music festival at Camp Mather in Yosemite] I realized there was a whole world I could be a part of. That's when I thought, 'That's what I want to do.'"
It was also in the Bay Area that Welch first heard recordings by the Stanley Brothers. "I loved the energy of punk and alternative music, and when I heard the Stanley Brothers it was the first time I heard acoustic music that was as driving and edgy as I liked. That was the moment I was able to unite the alt-rock records I knew with the world of acoustic and folk music I'd grown up with. I thought, 'That's what I sing like. That's how I play guitar. That's what I can do.' " From there she discovered the Blue Sky Boys, brothers Bill and Earl Bolick. "I loved their crazy, crazy harmonies," she says. "They used a lot of unison, a lot of seconds." ("Seconds" are intervals more common to the harmonies of Bulgarian folk music than bluegrass.) "They did everything you can to have the vocals be exciting. That was really informative for Dave and I -- they were the first group we tried to emulate, crossed with the Carter Family, of course, 'cause I'm a chick."
Ever a realist, Welch knew the chances of making a living in the music business were slim, so she enrolled at Boston's Berklee College of Music so she could get a job arranging and transcribing if her performing career fell through. There she met Rawlings, another picker into American roots music; they formed a personal and professional partnership, and moved to Nashville after graduation to take a shot at the big time. "One of the first people we met in Nashville was David Conrad, who became my publisher. He sent a tape of 'Orphan Girl' to Emmylou Harris." Harris recorded "Orphan Girl," which helped Welch get a deal with Almo, Herb Alpert's new label. After two well-received albums, Revival and 1998's Hell Among the Yearlings, the label folded. Undaunted, Welch and Rawlings founded their own company, Acony, to put out their latest disc, Time (The Revelator).
"I don't like the business part of the music business," Welch explains. "With our own label, we deal less with the business and make more records." It's well-known that studio time is one of the greatest expenses of recordmaking, so Welch and Rawlings recently completed a deal to buy Nashville's Woodland Studios, which stands alongside RCA's legendary Studio B as a monument to the old days of analogue recording. "I still can't believe we were able to finance the deal," Welch said. The spot is one of the oldest studios in Nashville, and was almost torn down to make room for a Walgreens. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made Will the Circle Be Unbroken there, and it was home to Excello and Nashboro Records, two great R&B and gospel labels. Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and the Fairfield Four all recorded there. "The room itself is pretty much as it was, and for now we're concentrating on getting it up and running, so we can record our next album."
Welch said that she's already writing tunes and working out arrangements for it, which may or may not feature more electric guitar. "Will we plug in?" she says. "It's hard to say. I think of the last album as an electric guitar album, only without the electric guitar. I know there are people who have been hoping for years that we'd have another sound on our albums, and I'd hate to tease them." Welch said that one thing she's been aiming at are records that sound like mini-suites, or folk symphonies. "My favorite albums by other artists are cohesive and interconnected and I enjoy that. I'm an AOR gal. If I like an album, I put it on and listen from top to bottom and get to know the whole flow of that forty minutes, and what it does."
While she acknowledges the minimalist approach that critics have lauded, she's also open to experimentation. "I'm not a person who thinks more is better, which is not to say that we don't improvise or surprise people when we're onstage. Duet music is highly arranged, so we have to get to a certain level of proficiency, so people will not be painfully aware that they're listening to two guitars and two singers, but within that, Dave plays different stuff every night. And I can shift feeling along with him, so things can happen. When people come to our shows they sink into our world, and when they get attuned to our subtle palette, they can be surprised."
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