Gillian Welch Revival 40:070:00/40:07
season 1 episode 11 transcription
That sound. The sound of two voices singing in close harmony—weaving in and out, one voice taking over where the other leaves off—blurring the line between the melody and the harmony—this is an essential sound in roots music. It is a sound that has endured since the beginning of recorded music. That was Charlie & Ira Louvin—The Louvin Brothers recorded in 1959. They most likely learned this from a combination of the shape note singing they heard in church…
As well as some of the other country duos of the 1930s. Groups like the Blue sky Boys
Or the Delmore Brothers
Or the Leatherman Sisters
Those were all examples of blood harmony—sisters singing with sisters, brothers singing with brothers— a sound that is near impossible to replicate unless you’ve spent your whole life hearing each other’s voices.
There you have the Louvin Brothers singing a song from the Delmore Brothers. It’s not hard to trace that sound through the decades, right into modern music.
Starting with the Everly Brothers we moved on to the Beatles, of course, and then Simon & Garfunkel and we finished off with The Milk Carton Kids doing Honey Honey recorded 2013. So why am I playing all this music from the early part of the last century when the subject of this podcast was an album released in 1996? Because it was this combination of voice and style that inspired the Gillian Welch to write the song that ignited her career. Here are the Stanley Brothers singing I’ll Not Be A Stranger recorded in the late 1950s.
Gillian Welch heard folk music at a very early age. The songs of the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie & Bob Dylan were all around her as early as her schooldays at Westland Elementary in Los Angeles. She even performed some of them. She continued playing music through high school and on to college at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Her interests widened to include goth and psychedelic surf music. Her roommate in college introduced her to the music of the Stanley Brothers. This was the moment she quote, “found her music.” Unquote. After getting her degree in photography, Gillian took her love of this old-time music across the country to Boston where she studied songwriting at Berklee College Of Music. It was there, auditioning for the the only country band at the school, she met her musical partner, David Rawlings.
Gillian and David ended up in Nashville where they continued to write and perform and, as one does in Nashville, surround themselves with creative people. In my experience, people move to Nashville—not just to get famous—but to immerse themselves in a community of folks who are devoted to the craft of singing and writing their own songs. Sure, there are those that go seeking fame and fortune, but the majority are creative people living and writing in a community of creative people. It’s also not an easy place to make a living as a musician. That’s why there are so many talented Uber drivers, wait staff and, in the case Gillian Welch in the early 90s, innkeepers all over Music City USA. While on her commute one morning she was listening to a recording by the Stanley Brothers. Gillian challenged herself to write a song that would fit that style. What emerged that day was a song that would change everything for her, and her musical partner, David Rawlings.
Orphan Girl became the song that would find its way into the repertoires and onto the albums of artists like Emmylou Harris & Tim & Molly O’brien even before Welch and Rawlings recorded it. It also opened doors to publishing deals and cleared a path to recording their first record in 1996, Revival.
That commercial for Nashville tourism from 1990 hardly reflects the music of the Stanley Brothers. In fact, the so called older sound was all but eliminated from country radio by that time. When Gillian and then 6 weeks later, David arrived in Nashville in 1992, the charts were dominated by the clean shaven, hat wearing likes of Randy Travis, Alan Jackson & Garth Brooks. Only a few women were included at the top of those charts and they had names like Reba and wynonna. I wasn’t there, but I would imagine that the songs at the Writers rounds of that era sounded more like Achy Breaky Heart than anything the Stanley Brothers or Louvin Brothers would have recorded.
Enter the beginning of what would become to be known as americana music. Artists like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Alison Krauss and, before long, Gillian Welch were starting to get the attention of publishers and fans. It was crafty and intelligent writing that was contemporary, but also steeped in the tradition of a sound rejected by mainstream country music. The music and songs of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings fit right in.
Producer T. Bone Burnette heard the duo when they opened for Peter Rowen at the Station Inn—Nashille’s home for bluegrass and mostly acoustic, traditional style country music. He liked what he heard. More importantly, he agreed that the power in those songs were illuminated, not hindered, by the sparse arrangements. The team was now in place to create a record that would be, not only the introduction of Gillian Welch & David Rawlings to the wider world, but a record that would influence other artists to write new songs that attempt to sound timeless and perform them in a way that revives a tradition that has survived centuries. The sessions started with just Gillian, David and T. Bone setting the mood for what was to come.
Several songs were recorded just like that—two guitars and two vocalists conjuring the spirit of those old duos both of the artists grew up listing to. The next round expanded to include some of Nashvilles most respected studio musicians like guitarist James Burton, Bassist Roy Huskey Jr, and renowned session drummers Buddy Harmon & Jim Keltner. I mean these guys played with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, most of the Beatles— the list really does go on and on. The result was 10 short stories in song form produced and performed in a way that felt both new and old at the same time. Of course there was some criticism about authenticity. Ann Powers writing for Rolling Stone criticized them for, quote, manufacturing emotion, unquote and for not writing from her own experience. We’ll address some of that later when I introduce my guest for this episode, but let me say now that it seems manufacturing emotion and writing outside of yourself is part of the job of a songwriter. As far as we know, Stephan Foster never dangled a toe in the Suanee River, and yet still did a pretty good job writing about it.
Revival opens with the song that started it all. As I said earlier, Orphan Girl was an attempt to write something a traditional duo like the Stanley Brothers would like to sing. A simple statement of the longing to reunite in heaven with a family the persona of the lyric never had on earth. And oh, that sweet duo harmony…
I don’t know about you, but I can imagine the Stanley Brothers version of that song without any trouble at all. The next track, Annabelle is a heartbreaking tale of a mother in the dustbowl era wrestling with hardship…
Hardship that leads to a divesting loss of her daughter.
And yet, somehow still holding on to what’s left of her faith—that’s in the chorus…
These first two songs might set you up to think that this whole album is a fresh revival of old sounds and old themes only. That is quickly dispelled with the aid of distorted electric guitars and a song about a muscle car driver and a stick-up on the side.
Pass You By was co-written with David Rawlings and I don’t remember the Stanley Brothers sounding like that. Track four on Revival was written as a song Townes Van Zandt might sing. If you’re not familiar with Townes, you might know a couple of his songs that made it pretty big in the hands of other performers. Songs like If I Needed You by Emmylou Harris and Don Williams and Poncho & Lefty by Willie & Merle. The other hundred or so songs Townes wrote set and continues to set the bar for americana songwriters to this day. He had a way of telling a whole story in just a few lines. This is exactly what Gillian Welch and David Rawlings do in the brilliant song Barroom Girls. It starts with the night coming undone like a party dress…
A deceptively simple song lasting just over 4 minutes, about a girl going to bed and then getting up, brilliantly written to allow the listener to fill in the rest of the 400 page novel.
Last night’s spangles and yesterday’s pearls Are the bright morning stars of the barroom girls…Townes would approve. Next up it’s another short story in the form of 4 verses and a chorus, another co-write between Gillian and David, One More Dollar tells the story of a young man leaving his family to pick fruit as a migrant worker—just trying to make that one more dollar before he returns home for good. How does it turn out for him? Well you should probably be detecting a pattern by now…
Gillian Welch or Gillian Welch and David Rawlings wrote all ten tracks on Revival. I say this because the next song, By the Mark sounds like it’s been in the tradition for a hundred years. If there is any doubt about Gillian and Davids deep understanding of this style snd their ability to write within it, consider this as evidence…
Paper Wings is a song that simply casts a spell. It’s no surprise that the drums on that song were played by the same guy who played on Patsy Clines version of Crazy, Buddy Harmon.
Oh, the subtle switch from the acoustic arch top to the electric guitar, the perfect amount of effects on the voice to make it feel old and new at the same time—there is just so much to love in that track.
One of the most covered songs on Revival is Gillian’s composition, Tear My Stillhouse Down—a simple plea and a morality play in the span of four minutes and thirty-one seconds.
It occurs to me that I haven’t said nearly enough about the guitar playing of David Rawlings. His search for the perfect acoustic guitar for these sessions landed him on the thin, tight sound of an arch top. His fluid, melodic style is perfect for these arrangements. The guitar lines he plays often become like a character in the song. Like this brilliant little lick that should, and does evoke a flower. Specifically, an acony bell.
With so many beautifully crafted songs of struggle and despair on Revival, Acony Bell breaks through with message of hope.
Revival concludes with the longest track on the album, Only One and Only, a poetic and heartbreakingly beautiful exploration of loneliness. What a first line: There's a hundred bluebirds/ Up above the clouds/ Putting all the color in the sky/ And twice as many teardrops There to wash it down/ Every one's another lullaby
I picked Gillian Welch and David Rawlings Revival for the podcast because there was nothing like it before and it influenced so much of what came after—the style, the writing, the guitar sound—is now woven deep into what we think of as americana music. Timeless.
My guest for this episode is one of my favorite songwriters and one of my favorite human beings, Danny Schmidt. Danny’s deep insights and thoughtfulness show up in everything he writes prompting the Chicago Tribune to include him on their list of the 50 most significant songwriters in the last 50 years. His songs are deeply poetic and revealing. Sing Out Magazine called him, quote, a force of nature: a blue moon, a hundred-year flood, an avalanche of a singer-songwriter. His songs are a flood of poetry, mythology, folk wisdom, and surprise. He is perhaps the best new songwriter we've heard in the last 15 years., unquote. I happen to agree. Danny has released 9 solo albums and 1 duet recording with his wife Carie Elkin—another very talented singer songwriter. He was just starting to write songs when he encountered Revival by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. He had no trouble recalling that first listen…
This is one album where I have very specific memories of it because I was living on a communal farm at the time and was going on my way to a craft fair that was about 14 hour drive away with my girlfriend. And we were in a cargo van that had a five disc changer, If you remember those. And so we could only pick five records, and I picked a couple, she picked a couple and I think we probably had some consensus pick in the middle. And this was one of the records she had pulled. I had never heard of Gillian Welch. One thing that all of my favorite records seem to have in common is that I don't seem to like them straight away or, not that I dislike them, but they don't really click with me. But given that we had basically 28 hours of driving over the course of a week, I heard this one, you know, probably more than a dozen times. And probably, take six or seven into it, I’m singing along with everything. It's deceptively brilliant writing. It's so elegant that it sounds, It sounds kind of timeless in this kind of unimpressive way. It's not all this flowery language. It is just so perfect that you almost don't notice how elegant it is. But by less than six or seven, I was noticing just how perfect the language was. And then I got probably six or seven more listens, um, at the point that I was really appreciating it.
And at the time that I got into this, I had just started writing. So I probably had some amount of awareness about the craft that was going into these things. I had written enough songs probably at that point, probably half dozen songs or something, enough to know how hard certain parts of the process are enough to appreciate how well she had pulled it off.
There's such a consistency and she was kind of writing…they’re almost dated pieces. They, they seem time stamped in different eras. And the album's kind of interesting because the production kind of mirrors what era the song is kind of pulling from, you know, if it's dust bowl, era, or, you know, maybe early fifties stuff like, um, what's the one, um, Pass You By kind of has a little bit later era sound to it.
And she really chooses her language from the era of the melody and the style that the songs are pulling from.
I asked Danny Schmidt to comment on the criticism that surfaced at the time about authenticity and appropriation.
Yeah, it's tricky. I understand the concept of appropriation, but I also know everything that we create, nothing gets created out of a vacuum. We're all kind of building on traditions. And I don't know how you define it. I know there's kind of a line that sometimes it falls on one side or the other of that line. It feels like you didn't add enough of your own bit to it to push it past appropriation, into kind of homage or whatever. Also, I think if you do it well enough, you can kind of get away with it. Whichever line, if it has such authenticity. I remember the book, Education of Little Tree. I don't know if you ever read that. It had a lot of the same debate around it. I read it right around the same time that I started listening to Revival and caught wind of some of those arguments that were being made. And it it's this beautiful story about this semi orphan boy who goes to live with his grandparents, who kind of instill him with this Native American wisdom and outlook and perspective on life. And it's so beautiful, beautifully written, and you buy all of it. And then it came out years later, not just had it not been written by a Native American guy, but it was written by the guy that was writing speeches for George Wallace and had this extremely right wing writing gig. Who knows what his actual outlook was. So did that knowledge then make the book less beautiful and inspiring? You could argue that for days. I still thought it was great. And when people were kind of debating whether, an upper middle class girl from California could wear a hand stitched dress and sing songs that sound like they weren't even written by anybody—they were written by a tradition from a group of people, right. In, you know, 1910, I just kind of fell on the side of this stuff's so good
For me, the bar is kind of the suspension of disbelief. If I'm into the third verse of the song, and I could picture the woman in depression era Oklahoma, who had written this thing, and I'm still there with her, then the song's working. If at some point in the middle of the song, it's like, uh, no, this sounds like 1996, a girl from from California playing a character, really well, but playing a character and this, this album, there's very few moments of mbreaking that suspension of disbelief.
I think there's a self-consciousness about that issue of appropriation in the production. Because I walked with this album a couple times this week, listened to it really carefully. And one thing that was kind of interesting is the songs that seem kind of the oldest in the most timeless and most sort of out of the tradition. I don't know if they recorded them around a single mic. They certainly mixed it in such a way to give that— it’s very mono. It's both of them kind of together. The ones that are like. T-bone seemed to add little touches to remind us that this wasn't 1910, you know, the very end of orphan girl comes in with this kind of fuzz, guitar.
Up till the guitar, the electric comes in, you know, it could just be a remastered Alan Lomax recording for the soundscape of it. Same with, By the Mark. That's another one that…and it's also very mono. It's very the two of them together in the middle of the listening field.
There has also been some talk about billing when it comes to the work of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. If they are a duo, why is it just Gillian’s name on the record?
So I didn't get to see Gillian…so this album came out in 1996. I saw her for the first time with David of course, um, like 1999. At that point I was not saying, and I didn't hear anyone else refer to them as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I just heard Gil Welch, Gillian Welch, Gillian Welch. And then when I saw 'em together, it was so striking and obvious halfway through the first song, this is a duo. This is Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and he's adding so much to this. It struck me as a little odd they didn't bill it that way. Although I interpreted it as, um, he's just shy. But you know, maybe it was a marketing decision. Maybe they decided to put the name behind the song writing element itself. But, They are such duo songs, even if they're not duets.
And one of my favorite songs on the record is, Ballroom Girls, which is absolutely like a duet with her and the guitar. He's almost almost replying to her lines, but also kind of illustrating her lines musically. She would sing this kind of little lament and then he would fill the hole after it with kind of the musical equivalent of what she had just sang. And that the solo on that song is one of my favorite moments on the whole record. It is so elegant.
Props to T-Bone Burnett for keeping it mixed down, not stepping it up. It really makes you kind of like lean into your headphones and try to catch all the nuance. But it is it's so lyrical, like the way he plays and they kept, they didn't compress it a lot. It's got all this dynamic quality to it. It's like a voice singing with his guitar. It's like, okay, now you take a verse.
I mentioned to Danny that, to my mind at least, the guitar playing in Acony Bell somehow evoked an image of the flower Gillian sings about…
Songs like that, that match the theme and the lyrical quality to the music always feel so organic to me. You always feel like, you know, either they had their beautiful little melody and that conjured a flower in their own head, just the way it kind of did to you. That's how I imagine it. Or, you know, sometimes the other way around, they had a couple flowering lines and It's like, well, let's marry that to a flowery melody. That's one of the songs on the record too, like Orphan Girl and By the Mark, it really sounds like the two of them and a single mic. It's very mono and tight in the middle and it just sounds ancient and timeless.
As I listened to Revival I kept wondering if they ever considered reviving an actual song from tradition to mix in with the originals. Turns out that version of Old Time Religion was being considered. It didn’t make the cut though… Danny comments…
I think that was a smart artistic decision. It would make us wonder about each song without having to go, you know, I know that you're a liner note reader and I'm a liner note reader, but you can't count on people going to the liner notes. And I think it's nice just to have this blanket statement: These are all Gillian Welch songs. They might not sound like they come from the hills, but these are all killing what songs you put one or two songs that had been uncovered by the Carter family. It would. You would've been wondering, you know, By the Mark I would've assumed that was an old song.
There's a lot of ways in which different writers raised the bar in different ways, Different aspects of songwriting, but that was one for her that she raised a bar as har as high as it had been in my head around the idea of just totally organic song that just feels like it was inevitable and always existed—and not that that a person didn't put it together outta their head.