Gillian Welch : Old School Girl in a New School World
Photos by Paxton X
Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings have a well-earned reputation for living in the musical past, with the brilliantly backward-looking amalgam of bluegrass, folk and rock that they’ve been propagating since Welch’s debut album Revival in 1996. And no one was more thrilled than these two when the turn of the last millennium came around, though not for particularly futuristic reasons.
“I loved when we came through the aughts again. I loved that we could say ‘oh-something’ again,” says Rawlings.
“There we were again! Oh, ‘The time of the preacher in the year of oh-one,’” chimes in Welch, quoting a famous Willie Nelson song from Red-Headed Stranger.
In the Welch/Rawlings world, everything old eventually becomes new again. “What happened on our way here?” she asks, rhetorically, still wearing the faded blue Grateful Dead shirt that she’s had on for the last three states. “Dave and I drove through a dust storm. It’s still going around!”
Earlier today, the two were driving through Arizona when they ran into a furious storm on the far side of Flagstaff. Since much of Welch’s music is timeless enough that she could have written it during the Depression, this was possibly Woody Guthrie bestowing his dirty blessing from the great beyond. Or maybe it’s just that the force of their musical personality is so strong that occasionally even the surrounding weather is compelled to go retro.
Not really being into planes, but being big on writing in roadside motels, Welch and Rawlings have made the round-trip drive between their bases in Nashville, Tenn. and LA ten times in the last year.
Tonight, they’ve pulled into town just in time for a late-night interview at a West Hollywood deli. But the real reason for the drive is that, tomorrow, they’ll spend the day at an old printing press near MacArthur Park, where the cover art insert for Welch’s new CD will be manufactured using the tricky, all-but-antiquated letterpress process.
The inserts will be “about as thick as a coaster—as thick as it can be and still slide in a jewel case” according to Welch. “The printing press took delivery on 4,000 pounds of paper yesterday,” she laughs, giddy with anticipation.
This might seem like a folly to almost anyone else, but “there are so many liabilities for running your own record label—this is one of the instances where no one could really tell us not to,” she says. “So, what the hell!”
It might seem like the understatement of the post-aughts to say that there is a whiff of nostalgia around much of the Welch ethos. But no one has been more nostalgic in recent years than Welch’s dedicated fan base—nostalgic, that is, for the days when their heroine was still making records. The Harrow & the Harvest, Welch’s new album, is her first effort in eight years. That’s a hell of a layoff—mitigated only by the fact that her timeless sounds are immune to the “dated” qualities that might afflict any pop artist who played Rip Van Winkle.
So where has she been hiding out? Some alternate dimension, we would hope, where she and the Stanley Brothers are pop stars?
“I wish I could tell you that we had taken a wonderful six-year vacation,” she says.
“Oh yeah, my God, please!” says Rawlings. “Tell the world that! Tell them that we went to every island and backpacked through Alaska.”
“But it is not true,” concedes Welch. “The thing that was most harrowing about it”—her use of the word harrow here, a la the new album’s title, may not be coincidental—“[was as] this whole chunk of time that has gone by, we always thought we were working toward my next record. We really never stepped away from it, as unbelievable as it is to say.”
“Largely at every moment, we were thinking, ‘No, we can’t do that, because we’re working on Gil’s next record,’” says Rawlings. “No fan could have been more frustrated than we were. Truly, deeply frustrated.”
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