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Cover Story

Forging the Fabric:

VETERAN MASTERY: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings headline Winoca Fest this Saturday. Photo by Mark Seliger

 

WINOCAFEST HAS BEEN CANCELED
DUE TO HURRICANE IRENE!


Gems hide among the corners and back roads of America. They’re along the railroad tracks once utilized not just for cargo but mass travel. They’re the dilapidated barns hiding yesteryear’s hard day’s work. They’re the stories of Casey Jones and John Henry, carried through every banjo roll or acoustic riff, streamlined through every wail of the harmonica and bow of a fiddle. They’re the five releases spanning Gillian Welch’s 15-year career, alongside music partner and master guitarist David Rawlings.

After releasing “The Harrow and the Harvest” in June—their first album in eight years—the captivating, haunting, enlivening and enveloping sound of traditionally modernized folk brought with it a nostalgia the duo so brilliantly bottle. Again, they have channeled a snippet of Americana in its vastness, even taking it one step further by touring along back roads, away from interstates and rush-hour traffic, regardless of its time constraints against their next show.

“There was something we were finding increasingly dislocating about airplane travel,” Welch says in an interview released from her record label, Big Hassle Media (Welch declined all interviews to media mid-tour). “The lack of acknowledgment of space and miles and movement: It’s really grounding to do all the travel in the car. Dave said he feels our thoughts and ourselves gathering weight. The topography, culture and language of this country figure prominently in our work.”

Whether telling of a miner in Tennesee (“Miner’s Refrain,” “Hell Among the Yearlings,” 1998) or the lofty expectations of running a stillhouse (“Tear My Stillhouse Down,” “Revival,” 1996), Welch’s stories come to life against a backdrop of folk, gospel, blues and, yes, string-time rock ‘n’ roll. Her endearment to such genres was born of a love for early Americana greats: Bill Monroe, Bob Dylan, The Stanley Brothers, Neil Young, among others.

Though adopted by musically inclined parents—who often wrote for “The Carol Burnett Show—out of sunny Santa Monica, Welch’s heart somehow pulsated to Appalachia rhythms. When she attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, she auditioned for a country band, which led to her chance meeting with David Rawlings. From there, a perfect pairing formed, which would carry them a decade or so into sucess and Nashville, Tennessee.

“Dave has produced our last four records,” Welch says, “and is at least half of the writing team and the band.” Thus, she jokingly speaks of misappropriating their outfit’s simple name, “Gillian Welch.”

“We really should have been ‘The Black Strings’ or ‘Brass Keys’ or ‘Bright Stripes’ or ‘White Straps,’” she quips, “but it’s a little late for that now.”

Through many Grammy nominations, including her work on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (produced by T Bone Burnett, who also backed their first release, “Revival”), as well as Bluegrass and Country Music Association awards, the fortysomething plays with hypnotic appeal and moody solemnity. Some how, some way, it’s not repressing or depressing, even in the ominous undertones rolling out of “The Harvest and the Harrow.” The album follows in the footsteps of its predecessors, with more hardships (“The Way It Goes”), pride (“Way Down Along the Dixie Line”) and regret (“The Way the Whole Thing Ends”) evolving from every lyric’s storyline.

“We liked the title because it fit the sequence of the record,” Welch reveals, “which moves from minor key songs to major key songs, from tension to release. Also, this album and these songs were the harvest at the end of a very long harrowing time.”

Over 96 months, Welch and co. suffered a bout of writer’s block. Yet, it wasn’t in vein or without a new set of accomplishments. In 2010 they released Dave Rawlings Machine’s “A Friend of a Friend,” which gained four nominations at the 2010 Americana Music Association (AMA) awards. Welch also garnered praise for her collaborations with Robert Plant, Old Crow Medicine Show and The Decemberists, for which she’s currently nominated for an AMA Song of the Year for her work on “Down By The Water.”

“We were driving ourselves crazy trying to write,” she admits, also clarifying the heart and soul poured into the album as more than a mere “best hits” record. “‘The Way It Will Be’ is the only older song,” she says, “but it had a new sound we had to grow into, I guess. All of the inspiration finally came within the last year, after the creative reawakening that led to Dave’s record. I feel like these were the songs we were waiting for.”

Having produced the album in February in Woodland Sound Studios, an historic building the two bought 10 years ago, they continued cultivating Nashville’s muse. “Look at Dylan’s records,” she suggests. “Look at Neil Young’s records. Look at ‘O Brother.’ When you work in Nashville, some part of your artist brain has to confront Hank Williams, Bill Monroe—Elvis, even.”

Expectedly, Rawlings and Welch avoided fuss-free digital overtones and over-production. By sticking to the simplicity of record producing, they remained grounded in the city’s long, storied music history. Analog, four mics and a lot of passion are all they harmonized over to create a sound so perfectly pitched together, so beautifully erected from hushed rhythms of candor, it wraps its arms around any listener privy to its laze.

“The trick of it is getting a performance that has more in it than just correctly played notes,” Welch explains—“atmosphere, improvisation, even accidents can be important to us, feeling that it’s the master take.”

Live, there is an understated animation, reverberating through the acoustics. Once the duo said that in their heads they’re always playing electric rock ‘n’ roll, even though the rhythms seemed less panoramic. Their 2003 record “Soul Journey” evolved with electric guitar, organ, and drums filtering the songs. Still, Welch and Rawlings’ folk tradition remained as pure as mountain music at the turn of the century.

“Nothing has ever sounded as beautiful as acoustic instruments on analog tape,” Welch tells. “When you record everything at once, you capture our favorite sound,” she continues, “the sound of the instruments and the voices combining in the air … We love the sound of acoustic instruments. At this point, we have devoted our lives to that sound.”

“The Harrow and the Harvest” goes back to this foundation. Don’t miss Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, as they bring grace and poise and true beauty to Battleship Park this Saturday night. The two artists have laid groundwork for many popular acts scouring the charts today: Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show. It’s only respectful to bid the headliners a bona fide welcome along the banks of the Cape Fear River.

“While it’s surprising to look up and find that Dave and myself are veterans here, I think we staked out some ground that has proved pretty fertile,” she says. “We hope we have added to that [folk] tradition.”

Indeed, they’ve added yet another gem to the fabric of Americana.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, 910tix.com. Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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