A friend and former colleague sent me the link to a story in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine entitled How Gillian Welch and David Rawlings Hold Onto Optimism. Author Hanif Abdurraqib writes beautiful prose with the soul of a poet as he describes how the two musicians “discover a new emotional urgency in songs about the slow, challenging, beautiful heat of living.”
It is a story perfect for this week in America.
I have loved the aching, soulful music of Welch and Rawlings for more than two decades. No one has captured, for me, the essence of their deceptively simple yet oh so deep style better than Abdurraquib does in this new profile. Near the beginning of his essay, he writes,
“I saw them in Virginia in the fall of 2018 at an outdoor show that was intermittently stormy. A crowd of a few hundred people descended on a wide field, our feet sinking into the muddy grass. About halfway into their set, they gave a performance of the song “Hard Times” that has been worked into my memory. The tune is, on its surface, about overcoming the world’s ills — a man plows and sings to his mule, until he stops plowing and one day the mule is gone. It’s a patient and heartbreaking song, filtered through a vague but believable promise of something better. Especially when played live, it feels as if you’re nursing an open wound that is slowly stitching itself closed, inch by inch.“
“Hard times, ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.” Could there be better words for right now, more than ever?
The Times interview took place at East Nashville’s historic Woodland Studios, which the couple owns and which was hard hit by the March tornado in the city. Woodland will forever be identified in my mind as the place where the seminal Will the Circle Be Unbroken album was recorded in 1971. Decades before O Brother Where Art Thou?, there was Will the Circle Be Unbroken when some long-haired hippies and rockers took country, bluegrass, and mountain music on its own terms and showed how wonderful it could be. Welch’s ownership of the studio is a fitting link in the musical circle, as she served as one of the musical consultants and artists for T. Bone Burnett when he brought together some of the giants of old-time music for the Coen Brothers’ O Brother soundtrack, an album that once again reminded a larger audience of the emotion and power in this music.
One other song included in the Times profile deserves special mention. Again, Abdurraquib writes,
“Welch and Rawlings recorded ‘All the Good Times’ on their couch in the early months of the pandemic, thumbing through an old dog-eared folk songbook that they’d held dear since their time at Berklee College of Music in the early ’90s. The songs sound intimate, almost as if you are in the room with them but perhaps hiding, an uninvited guest to their party. The recordings are sparse — so sparse that the excitement isn’t in the instrumentation itself but in the slow crawl of two voices, seeking to meet each other in the field of some chorus or crescendo. The best of the revisitations are the ones that ache, like the title track, which slows down Ralph Stanley’s version. The song is about parting with a lover, but when Rawlings’s voice kicks in the door with the lyrics “I wish to the Lord I’d never been born/or died when I was young,” it is so rightfully deflating that it suddenly becomes a eulogy for an entire country, an entire world as we knew it. And that is the trick with ‘All the Good Times — finding in these old and familiar songs new and unfamiliar griefs.”
Having sung together since the early 90s, Welch and Rawlings have an extensive catalog which can be explored through You Tube videos or your favorite streaming platform. The Way It Will Be is a lovely live version from a 2016 Swedish television show called “Jills Veranda” in which the producers invite Swedish artists to Nashville to discover country music. The blond lady in the video is Veronica Maggio and according to the notes with the video she’s actually one of Sweden’s biggest pop stars. Here Welch and Rawlings perform with a simplicity and power that one seldom finds in most popular music, but which they seem to capture effortlessly in much of their work together.
Look at Miss Ohio contains some tasty guitar work by Rawlings. Plus I just love the line “”I wanna do right but not right now.”
“Have your arm around her shoulder / A regimental soldier /And momma starts pushin’ that wedding gown / Yeah I wanna do right but not right now”
For the live O Brother concert at the Ryman, Welch and Rawlings performed the Welch tune I Want to Sing That Rock And Roll, which begins with the lines:
“I want to sing that rock and roll.
I want to ‘lectrify my soul,
‘Cause everybody been making a shout
So big and loud, been drowning me out.
I want to sing that rock and roll.”
Hearing those lines, is it any surprise that Welch and Rawlings sang at the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s controversial (at the time) performance with electric instruments at the Newport Folk Festival?
Finally, let’s end with one of Welch and Rawlings most haunting songs, Time (The Revelator), which comes from the award-winning album of the same name. “It’s impossible, this album suggests, to separate the individual from the community, or the present from the past,” writes one commentator. All the tunes on the album reference American history, from Welch’s personal perspective. Here, Welch’s lead vocal is heartbreakingly timeless, Rawlings finds all sort of dissonant notes in his guitar leads that shouldn’t work, but do. And the entire experience takes one out of time into a dreamlike existence. I couldn’t agree more with the commentator who wrote, “Their sound and harmonies are like honey and heartbreak.”
Read the entire New York Times profile, as you may find special meaning there in this day and age. Then go and find some more Gillian Welch and David Rawlings to enjoy.
More to come…
Image: Cover of the duo’s “Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs,” a three-volume collection of recordings that were rescued from the flooded Woodland Studios following the March tornado (the first volume was released in the middle of July).