It was the early ‘90s; a friend had encouraged me to come by Bear’s Back Room to hear Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings from Nashville, Tenn. They were on the road, playing their first gig in Bloomington and had yet to make a record. I came late, halfway into the evening. Before I had time to find a seat, I was stopped in my tracks and spent the rest of the night standing in the doorway at the precipice of another time and place in what felt like the early days of country music.
They had it all, the writing and musicianship, and on stage they looked like a Dorothea Lange photograph sprung to life. Gillian, with hair tied back, was wafer thin, in vintage attire. Dave’s shock of dark hair was anchored by sideburns, and he was wearing a dress coat and wrestling a calliope of sounds out of his guitar.
This two-piece band filled the room with close-knit harmony singing, reminiscent of the Blue Sky Boys or the Carter Family. “By The Mark,” “Orphan Girl” and the seductive yet ethereal “Paper Wings” were story-filled, about people you might have known or at least cared about by the time the song got sung.
There was an image of Gillian in the spotlight with her head bent way over her guitar, rocking to a steadfast beat, foot tapping, singing with an old-time conviction, and Dave Rawlings’s guitar playing was mesmerizing and is even more so today. (How does he get that sound?)
The two met at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Dave was accepted into the guitar program, and Gillian majored in songwriting.
Berklee now offers an American Roots Program founded and directed by jazz and bluegrass violinist extraordinaire Matt Glaser, but 20 years ago only a small group of Berklee students were involved in the singer/songwriting section.
Gillian and Dave found they enjoyed the way their voices sounded while they were singing together, with an almost sibling-like harmony. After Gillian moved to Nashville, Dave followed, and the two began singing, writing and performing as a duo.
You can't say enough about Dave Rawlings’s guitar playing. The small but mighty 1935 Epiphone Olympic arch-top guitar is made of plywood with mahogany back and sides sporting three-piece f-holes. He found it covered with sawdust in a friend’s New England workshop. Dave managed to take it in trade.
Dave’s cross picking and plucking ring bright and at times have a harplike quality. His ability to coax out a dizzying amount of just the right notes anywhere on the neck is truly a feat to behold. Enchanting as ever are these 21st-century troubadours. Their trademark sound that we have come to know is steadfast but more mature, nuanced and revealing.
By the mid-90s two Gillian Welch cassette tapes found their way into the WFHB studio with maybe three songs on each. I played them in my old-time mix on Wednesday mornings. “Red Clay Halo” and “Tear This Still House Down” were still getting regular airplay when Gillian’s first record, Revival, arrived. Co-produced by the infamous T-Bone Burnett, the album was released in 1996. Burnett respected their pared-down approach to recording with no overdubs or fancy production techniques. They all agreed to keep it as true to their live performance as possible.
“Hell Among the Yearlings,” the name of an old-time fiddle tune, came out in 1998, the second project with Burnett, also on Almo Records. Rawlings produced their third record, Time (The Revelator), in 2001, and Soul Journey, recorded in their home studio, was released in 2003, both on Gillian and Dave’s own Acony label.
Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings were fast becoming the sweethearts of an emerging Americana music scene while catching the ear of many well beyond.
Much has been made of the eight-year “drought” since Welch’s last record, Soul Journey. However, four albums in seven years are no small feat. The quality of the work speaks for itself. And let’s not forget the Grammy nomination for Time (The Revelator) in 2002 for Best Contemporary Folk Album (they lost to Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft). Their collaborations on the soundtrack of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? won the Grammy Album of the Year in 2001, bringing greater global appeal to old-time country music.
Over the years the duo toured extensively, performing with and contributing to a wide variety of projects, from Bright Eyes to the Decembrists.
But it was hitting the road supporting the Dave Rawlings Machine’s first album, Friend of a Friend, in 2009, with Dave headlining this time, that opened the floodgates for new songs. On tour with the Machine, backed by members of Old Crow Medicine Show (can there ever be too much talent on one stage?), inspired Welch to finish what is now her long-awaited project, The Harrow & The Harvest.
She told Andrew Leahy at American Songwriter, “It’s our most intertwined, co-authored, jointly composed album.”
Welch has said of the eight-year gap that her song craft had slipped, and she really didn’t know why. That it is not uncommon and happens to writers. It had been the deepest frustration they had come through, hence the album title.
The Harrow & The Harvest is filled with stark images of life’s wrong turns, rough edges and unmet expectations. It is also complete with an enduring beauty, a fabric of close harmonies, banjos, mandolins and guitars sparse yet true. We are rewarded over time by listening again and again.
“Scarlet Town,” “A Dark Turn of Mind” and “The Way It Goes” speak of human frailty, hardship and loss. The first half of the album moves from minor keys to major in the latter half, perhaps echoing the resilience of moving forward from despair.
Once, when asked if she had any happy love songs in her treasure chest, Welch replied, "As a matter of fact I don't. I've got songs about orphans and morphine addicts."
Becky Johnson bought the farm
Put a needle in her arm
That’s the way it goes
That’s the way it goes
- “The Way It Goes”
"We’ve kind of half-jokingly said that this record is 10 different kinds of sad, and there are 10 songs on it." - source
“We’ve kind of half-jokingly said that this record is 10 different kinds of sad,” Welch told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “And there are 10 songs on it.”
Leave me if I’m feeling too lonely
Full as the fruit on the vine
You know some girls are bright as the morning
And some have a dark turn of mind.
- “A Dark Turn of Mind”
“The Way It Will Be,” the third cut on the album, is one they have performed live and is a remnant of the Soul Journey period with a languid essence.
I never been so disabused
Never been so mad
I never been served anything
That tasted so bad
You might need a friend
Any day now, any day
Oh my brother, be careful
You are drifting away”
- “The Way It Will Be”
One of my favorites turned out to be the sweet, loving, banjo-plucking sound of
“Hard Times” – “ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.”
So come on you Ashville boys and turn up your old-time noise.
And kick ‘til the dust comes up from the cracks in the floor
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.
- “Hard Times”
The trademark sound of Gillian and Dave has stayed true all these years to the roots of country music, and they continue to write in that genre while infusing modern-day influences of rock’n’roll, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and much more.
The Harrow & The Harvest is a journey you want to take your time with. Don’t rush it. Come on back to the front porch while listening to those dulcet tones with a tall glass of iced mint tea while summer lingers. Take it all in, watching those tall stalks of dust-pink Joe Pye Weed swaying in the evening breeze. Where the river wanders and the murder ballads reign.
Debora Frazier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.