What’s with Welch? | AspenTimes.com

What’s with Welch?

Stewart Oksenhorn

Shame that Gillian Welch couldn’t find time to give me an interview. Because unlike with many interview subjects, from whom I want a few quotes to build a story around, I have some questions of Welch that I really am curious to find the answers to.Like, what in the world happened?How, I want to know, did Welch go from a West L.A. kid, whose parents wrote the music for “The Carol Burnett Show,” and a fine arts major at the University of California, Santa Clara, to a near-perfect approximation of a 1930s Appalachian singer, right down to the bloody, desperate songs and the peasant dresses?

And then, after establishing that old-time persona and convincing the world of its authenticity with two exceptional albums, how did she transform herself into the introspective, optimistic, practically carefree spirit of last year’s “Soul Journey”? On that album, also excellent, Welch becomes an entirely different character: the wannabe devil-may-care narrator of “Look at Miss Ohio” (“She been running around with the ragtop down / Says I want to be good but not right now”) and the seemingly autobiographical “Wrecking Ball” (“I was just a little Deadhead / Too much trouble for me to share”).Here’s what her official biography tells about Welch. At her ultra-progressive Los Angeles elementary school, an hour a day was devoted to folk music; Welch became the accompanist for the school’s Friday singalongs, strumming along to Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan songs. But in college, her attention was drawn to the art music of the Velvet Underground, the Pixies and Camper Van Beethoven.Her bluegrass epiphany came while cleaning a bathtub. A housemate put on a live Stanley Brothers record, and Welch was transported. She pored over bluegrass records, though her early performance experience came playing bass in a rock ‘n’ roll party band. She enrolled in the songwriting program at Boston’s Berklee School of Music but, intimidated by the virtuosos there, retreated further into raw old-timey music. When she hooked up with fellow student David Rawlings – still her constant partner in recording and touring – Welch became entrenched in a bygone world.

Welch arrived as a songwriting talent before she released her first album. Tim and Mollie O’Brien recorded Welch’s “Wichita,” and the Nashville Bluegrass Band included two of her songs on their 1995 album, “Unleashed.” She earned real notoriety that same year when “Orphan Girl,” a spare, sorrowful tune that seemed to come out of another time, became the centerpiece of Emmylou Harris’ acclaimed “Wrecking Ball” album.Welch’s 1996 recording debut “Revival,” produced by T Bone Burnett, fulfilled all her songwriting promise, and earned a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. “Hell Among the Yearlings” followed in perfect order by downbeat songs like “My Morphine,” “The Devil Had a Hold of Me” and “Caleb Meyer,” a particularly brutal and vivid account of a rape. Welch played a central role in the blockbuster “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, dueting with Alison Krauss on “I’ll Fly Away” and joining Krauss and Emmylou Harris on her own a cappella tune, “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby.”Welch began to make a turn with 2001’s “Time (The Revelator),” the first release on her Acony label. The mere fact that the album cover was in color was a break with her past. But that album, even with its sprawling, hopeful folk epic “I Dream a Highway,” didn’t hint at what was to come.

The cover of “Soul Journey,” with its cartoon sketches against a sky-blue background, was a radical departure. The songs were dreamy, even hinting at the possibility of a contemporary kind of fun. The album ended with “Wrecking Ball,” a song of exuberant release, about seeing the light in the world. A line like, “She showed me colors that I’d never seen” would have seemed terribly out of place on her first two albums. When the album was released, publicity photos of Welch had her dressed in tie-dye.I’d love to know the story behind all that.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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