Gillian Welch is a figure of frustration for those who like to pin artists to a particular provenance. She’s been honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Americana Award and nominated for Country Music Grammys, but grew up in New York and Los Angeles. Her occasional clawhammer banjo and Depression-era imagery clash with her self-described ‘tiny rock song’ approach to writing. Welch and musical partner David Rawlings sometimes seem to be singing straight from a 1930s Appalachian whiskey hall but as a lyricist Welch really comes from nowhere and everywhere at once.
Put up for adoption before she was born, Welch points to ‘Orphan Girl’ from her first record as her most autobiographical track ‘To meet my family at God’s table/I’ll meet my mother, my father/My sister, my brother/No more orphan girl’. Archetypal figures populate her early releases: a freewheeling Miss Ohio on the arm of a regimental soldier, morphine-addicted rural types, struggling farming families. The personal swirl and the imaginary swirl together in Welch’s writing to form a backdrop that is decidedly ‘country’ but always liable to be punctuated with nods to Grateful Dead or San Francisco junkies.
Rawlings and Welch speak of each other as songwriting partners both musically and lyrically. They demand high standards of each other, shrugging off an eight-year gap between records as a matter of ‘not liking what we were getting, so we didn’t put it out’. An appearance on the almost unreasonably well-received soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? boosted anticipation for their 2001 Time (The Revelator), which handily turned out to be among their most refined work.
A ‘Top 10 songs’ list can highlight Welch’s strength as a forthright and measured storyteller but her grander narratives can only be fully appreciated in their soulful entirety. The 17 verse ‘I Dream a Highway’ is a titanic and mournful sigh of a ballad. The lullaby-slow epic skates from Emmylou Harris to whiskey benders, morning after diner breakdowns to a piteous resurrected Lazarus. Welch’s best songs are like the folk and bluegrass standards that she borrows from – timeless and universal but undoubtedly personal.
- ‘Wrecking Ball’ (Gillian Welch: Soul Journey– 2003)
Lyrics: That’s what I was when I first left home/I took every secret that I’d ever known/And headed for the wall/Like a wrecking ball
- ‘Everything Is Free’ (Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator)– 2001)
Lyrics: Every day I wake up humming a song/But I don’t have to run around, I just stay home/And sing a little love song/My love, myself
- ‘Tennessee’ (Gillian Welch: The Harrow & The Harvest– 2011)
Lyrics: Why can’t I go and live the life of Riley?/Why can’t I go back home to apple pie?/Because your affront to my virtue was a touch too much/But you left a little twinkle in my eye
- ‘Tear My Stillhouse Down’ (Gillian Welch: Revival– 1996)
Lyrics: Oh tell all your children that hell ain’t no dream/’Cause Satan he lives in my whisky machine
- ‘The Devil Had A Hold Of Me’ (Gillian Welch: Hell Among the Yearlings– 1998)
Lyrics: I dreamed last night that my time was done/And my soul flew up to the Holy Son/But the devil had a hold of me/I snapped back down when he pulled my lead
- ‘The Way the Whole Thing Ends’ (Gillian Welch: The Harrow & The Harvest– 2011)
Lyrics: Now what’s a little baby doing/Dressing up in banker’s clothes?/What’s a little sweetheart like you/Doing with a bloody nose?
- ‘Whiskey Girl’ (Gillian Welch: Hell Among the Yearlings– 1998)
Lyrics: Don’t you know that it ain’t a crime/If the squares and the junkmen think you’re out of line?/Nowhere man and the whiskey girl/Loaded up for a weekend in the underworld
- ‘April The 14th Part 1’ (Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator)– 2001)
Lyrics: It was a five-band bill, a two dollar show/I saw the van out in front from Idaho/And a girl passed out in the backseat trash/There was no way they’d make even half a tank of gas
- ‘Barroom Girls’ (Gillian Welch: Revival– 1996)
Lyrics: The night came undone like a party dress/And fell at her feet in a beautiful mess/The smoke and the whiskey came home in her curls
- ‘I Dream A Highway’ (Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator)– 2001)
Lyrics: Oh I dream a highway back to you, love/A winding ribbon with a band of gold/A silver vision come and rest my soul/I dream a highway back to you