Photo: Shannon Kelly
Exclusive: Gillian Welch On Vinyl, Songwriting, 'O Brother...' & More
Picture this: it is late in the evening on Labor Day 2018, Sept. 3, and a wrap-around wooden deck topped with party-goers surrounds an A-frame home on the southern side of Beech Mountain, N.C. near the mountain resort town of Banner Elk. The outdoor tables are filled with grilled chicken and other brought foods, the libations are plenty and the spread-out tiki torches are providing just the right amount of flickering light.
Soon, a bonfire is lit, made up of old wooden deck chairs and seasoned logs, and the relaxed partygoers begin to migrate to the yard. Two musicians decide to strike up some fireside music and begin to contemplate on what to sing to fit the occasion. They choose a song they both know and love: Gillian Welch’s 2003 modern classic “Look At Miss Ohio,” written by Welch and her long-time musical partner David Rawlings.
Welch's songs, including "Look At Miss Ohio," are played and sung around the world, whether it be amongst tall bonfire embers, or in the shadows of small, tended cooking fires or in coffeehouses and clubs found throughout the land. With its memorable lyrics and unhurried-yet-funky chorus, the song is stark and real and special.
The two house-party musicians are Fireside Collective guitarist Joe Cicero and western North Carolina vocalist Hope Harvey. As they roll through their impromptu version of “Look At Miss Ohio” Cicero throws some dissonant chords and a Major 6th into the bridge, giving their inspired rendition an otherworldly groove, and it works. Then, as their blended voices fade, the sound of thousands of late summer katydids eases the disappearance of the final notes as they atomize into the mountain air.
Fast-forward 25 days later and Welch is sitting in a dressing room in Raleigh, N.C., the Tar Heel State capital. The sights and sounds are of a different nature here: traffic, car horns, pavement, police whistles, parking garage echoes, and electric scooters clogging the sidewalks. It is the height of the 2018 International Bluegrass Music Association World Of Bluegrass convention and musicians, concert bookers, publicists, and radio DJs are here to do the business of bluegrass in tall buildings. Towards the end of the week, the industry talk gives way to the music as the Wide Open Bluegrass Street Fest gets underway.
On Friday evening, Sept. 28, Welch is about to perform at the 5,000-seat Red Hat Amphitheater located in downtown Raleigh, wearing one of her trademark vintage dresses. Welch is a special guest with the headlining First Ladies of Bluegrass band, an all-star group of women musicians who have all made history by being the first to win an IBMA Award for playing their respective instruments.
Welch’s temporary band mates on this night include Missy Raines (Bass Award), Alison Brown (Banjo Award), Sierra Hull (Mandolin Award), Becky Buller (Fiddle Award) and Molly Tuttle (Guitar Award). Also onboard for the highly anticipated set is GRAMMY Award winner Rhiannon Giddens.
When Welch hears about her song “Look At Miss Ohio” being sung in such a cool setting, she is proud and happy. But her eyes really light up when talking about her and Rawlings’ efforts to release that cut and the rest of their music on vinyl albums.
While the resurgence of vinyl in recent years has been well documented, Welch and Rawlings never left the old school appeal of that technology.
“‘Look At Miss Ohio’ is one of our most popular songs,” says Welch, smiling. “And, we could talk a long time about how profoundly meaningful it is to have our records released on vinyl. Because, my thing is, I listen to records while at home, and it was listening to vinyl records that changed my life in the first place. That is how I decided to do this (career). Sometimes I wonder if it would have happened while listening to CDs. Listening to vinyl is a profoundly different experience.”
The lack of auditory depth on CDs that you do get to hear when listening to vinyl albums is important for other reasons, according to Welch.
“A bunch of the more detailed sonic information has been lopped off of CDs,” says Welch. “And, it is just that little bit of nuance that is particularly meaningful to musicians. Because, what CDs eradicate is the part that you really need as a musician to figure out how our heroes are doing what they are doing. You can hear the musicians addressing the microphone on vinyl. You can hear the touch on the strings. Sadly, that stuff just didn’t make it onto the CDs. So, we are very excited that people are going to get to hear our music that way, especially because it was all recorded in analog in the first place. Our recordings have always been analog, as in completely analog. But, it has been a lot of work because we are doing it all ourselves. We have a custom lathe, so we’re fully committed to doing it the best way you can do it.”
So far, the evaluations of the vinyl releases have been positive for Welch and Rawlings.
“We just got a review on this audiophile website called Analog Planet by Michael Fremer and he reviews the music and the sound quality with a one-to-ten rating, and with the Soul Journey album he gave us an 11,” says Welch. “That makes me really happy because we worked hard on it. We are working our way through our whole catalog by going backwards.”
Vinyl albums can be like family members to those that love them.
“Vinyl albums are really nice things to have in your home,” says Welch. “They are very comforting. They are like books. They are like friends, really. You see those faces on the covers, and they are life-size. You see that face looking back at you."
The recordings that inspired Welch to seek out Appalachian roots melodies as a young woman were made by the Stanley Brothers, who walked the line between bluegrass and old-time mountain music.
“Those Stanley Brothers records really changed my life,” says Welch. “It was one of those live tapes recorded by Peter Kuykendall [musician and co-creator of Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine] called ‘Legendary Stanley Brothers Volume 1 and 2.’ There is a black and white photo of Ralph and Carter Stanley on it, and one record has a red banner and the other record has a yellow banner. [As for other influences,] Norman Blake also blew my mind. The Stanley Brothers blew my mind because of their sound and their harmonies and the old-time stories. I knew those folk songs from growing up, but to hear them with this crazy mountain harmony; I loved it. But then, Norman Blake was the one that made me think, ‘You mean you can write new songs that can sound old?’”
And, Welch has done just that with many of her classic cuts. If you listen to “Six White Horses” off of The Harrow and the Harvest album, you will swear that it was written 150 years ago, but not so.
“David and I wrote ‘Six White Horses,’” says Welch. “It was meant to sound that way. We were trying to write songs that had that ‘good stuff’ in them. I want that ‘good ole stuff,’ and then I want to also express what is going on in my life. Not to get morbid, but that song is not a museum piece or a recreation thing. My Mom was dying when we wrote that song. That is all I was thinking about. These things are real. This is the stuff that happens. This is what happens to people. Your parents die. Your lover cheats on you. Your baby is sick. You’re broke. All of this stuff happens. This is not back in time. It all depends on how you feel like voicing it. For me, voicing that stuff, as in the way of ‘Six White Horses,’ that is how I like to talk about these things. I like to boil it all of the way down to the image of it all. That works for me, but it may not work for everybody else. Some people like the real modern conversational and confessional approach. But I like to use folk poetry. It helps me.”
Although Welch has been nominated for a GRAMMY Award multiple times, she won her one and only GRAMMY for her work on the 2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou? movie soundtrack, which went on to sell nearly eight million copies and help create a new generation of lovers of bluegrass and old-time music. There is still an “O Brother Generation” coming to age now that took up playing musical instruments because of the impact of that movie and its songs.
“I know that album inspired a lot of people, and I love it,” says Welch. “That was basically my record collection come to life. [Producer] T Bone Burnett said to me, ‘Who is doing this music?’ The answer was Ralph Stanley, John Hartford and Norman Blake as well as The Whites and Alison Krauss. The one thing about it that was funny was that at the time, it wasn’t meant to be the greatest people in bluegrass brought onboard. I feel like it turned into such a big thing that I think there were some hard feelings for people that were left out. But, nobody knew what was about to happen. We were just making the music for this movie. It wasn’t any big deal then. But then, it happened pretty quickly. The movie was a hit, and the movie did that great thing where ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’ was also portrayed as a hit song in the movie and that is a powerful thing. That album was a really great overview and sampling of that music.”
A few years ago, Welch admitted to a bit of writer’s block when it came to creating new songs. But, that has since changed and fresh music is on the way.
“We have been writing a bunch of new songs,” says Welch. “The Harrow And The Harvest has been out for a while now and we have written two albums since then, but they were under David’s name. Sometimes, I feel like people think I have been twiddling my thumbs, but I have not been twiddling my thumbs. We are just about ready to start recording and we have a little pile of songs. We write songs in all different ways by this point. Sometimes they take two days to write, and sometimes two years. ‘Look At Miss Ohio’ was written really quick, and ‘Everything is Free’ was written quick. ‘Tennessee,’ however, took a long time and the song ‘Elvis Presley Blues’ did as well.”
As a testament to her talents, Welch's quick songs certainly feel fully rich while her slow songs are definitely worth the wait. Her calming command of her craft balances the chaotic energy surrounding the World Of Bluegrass festivities, and the mountain music community she helped build show her due appreciation as she takes the stage in Raleigh.