By Mark Guarino
As if selling seven million copies wasn’t enough, the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack made riding elevators easier for Gillian Welch.
“A really common question, when I’m checking in a hotel and going up the elevator with the bellman, is ‘oh, you’re a musician, what kind of music do you play?’ I used to say ‘bluegrass’ and get a blank look,” she said. “Now you say ‘it’s kind of like bluegrass’ and you get ‘oh, like that O Brother stuff?’ ‘Yeah, sort of like that’.”
When producer T Bone Burnett was hired to put together the soundtrack to the Depression-era comedy, he asked Welch and her manager Denise Stiff for help. They assembled their favorite old-time country, bluegrass, blues and folk songs and asked their favorite Nashville musicians to re-record them. Then, they sat back and waited for lightning to strike. It didn’t take long — after 114 weeks and last year’s Grammy win for album of the year, it remains in the top 20 of Billboard’s top-selling soundtracks chart.
There was a plus in it for Welch that she didn’t expect. The back-to-roots renaissance the soundtrack sparked started to clear away the mystification surrounding her own music. With her 1996 debut “Revival” (Almo Sounds), she was both cheered and scrutinized as a staunch revivalist of Depression-era music only because her originals (co-written with partner David Rawlings) sounded so much of that era due to the biblical imagery in the lyrics, Burnett’s threadbare production and the plainly-sung bleakness in her vocals. It helped that the accompanying black-and-white photos framed her wearing Dustbowl dresses and standing outside a broken-down house.
“Now that people have heard old-time string band music, I think there’s a better understanding that that’s not what I do,” she said. “I just think people have started to understand that we’re the totally contemporary cousin of that music. We’re the modernists in the group no matter what kind of dress I wear.”
Welch and Rawlings just have to go back 30 years for perspective. They share strong ties with John Fogerty, Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan and The Band — all rock artists who, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, sought refuge in rural musical cultures they were not born into but nevertheless connected with its mythic language, archetypal characters and timeless emotions. Their fascination with the music’s simplicity was not just in the instrumentation and arrangements. Its unadorned way of telling a story fit beautifully alongside rock’s unrelenting preference that primitive is better.
Welch said she was first struck by traditional music when she was younger and realized “it was like incandescent.” “It got translated to me immediately,” she said.
“Some people can hear a traditional song and when they get to a line like, ‘I’m going to catch that freight train and ride’, they tune out because they’re not going to literally get on a freight train and ride. And there are other people that hear that and translate it to a universal emotion — ‘I’m going to get out of here, it’s just crappy and I’m going to get out of here any way that I can’. So I’ve always been one of those people,” she said. “There are some beautiful phrases in the English language that have this crazy resonance in our human culture like ‘I’m going to catch a freight train and ride’. I can’t even start to make a list what that triggers in my brain. But it’s a big list.”
Welch was raised in the hills of Los Angeles. Her parents were veterans of the television industry, both sharing a credit as musical directors of “The Carol Burnett Show.” After meeting at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Welch and Rawlings formed a duo and moved to Nashville. Their partnership, which includes writing and performing only with each other, endures to this day. “Everyone in the world tried to get us a band when we started. They were like, ‘you’re completely crazy, you won’t get played on the radio’,” she said. Burnett stumbled upon them when he caught them opening a show he was attending. He ended up getting them a record deal and offering to produce their debut.
As Welch and Rawlings continued making albums, their subjects included rural poverty, miners, morphine addiction, Elvis Presley and, cloaked in the lamenting “Everything Is Free,” internet piracy. The thread between them all is Welch’s unhurried singing that is pretty but has a solitary ache. Each song sounds like a personal confession told to no one.
That lonesomeness is the reason her fourth album, “Soul Journey” (Acony), features many songs in a band setting. She said it was a reaction to her last album. “’Time (The Revelator)’ turned out to be a pretty intense record. I felt like we’ve covered melancholy and intense pretty well,” she said, laughing. “I wanted this to be a more relaxing record to listen to.”
Son Volt bassist Jim Boquist, Austin songwriter Mark Ambrose and veteran pedal steel guitar player Greg Leisz (Beck, Lucinda Williams) give some of the songs a full band treatment while others feature Welch alone, unaccompanied for the first time. To accommodate everyone’s schedules, the group had to speed through recording in four days, and never paused to check playback. Welch was well aware she was abandoning the allegorical type of songwriting she was used to and was opening up with songs that were pure autobiography. One song, “No One Knows My Name,” confesses she was adopted and explains that all she knows about her birth parents is that her mother was a 17-year-old freshman at Columbia University and her father, a random musician in New York. “It’s a wonder that I’m in this world at all,” she sings.
Even though the first song from her debut album was titled “Orphan Girl” back in 1996, Welch said she didn’t write so directly about her own past until now because it suddenly felt okay to do so. “I’m actually an incredibly, incredibly private person with my thoughts. I’m not used to just talking about it. So it’s not really unusual that it came out in song form first,” she said. Since then, her friends, and particularly mother and sister, have pressed her to find out more about her birth parents but she’s refused. “I get afraid that it’ll stir up some kind of trouble,” she said.
“Soul Journey” is the second album on Acony, the independent label she created after the Universal Music Group purchased Almo Sounds in 2000. Welch formed the label so she could enjoy “unlimited creative freedom” and reports that the sales of her past two records have already surpassed what she sold on a major label. Although she came close to signing a band she admires, she said she’s sticking to just releasing her own albums and related projects so she can avoid becoming a “record mogul.”
“It affords me the ability to do business in the same way I make music,” she said. “Which is I sometimes don’t listen to other people when I’m making the music and I do what I think is right. And I realize we can do business that way too. You make the industry the way you think it ought to be.”