Twenty years ago, Gillian Welch was an unknown songwriter, still in her 20s, playing acoustic sets around Nashville with her guitarist boyfriend. The two had recently graduated from Berklee College of Music, where they had bonded over a love of the Stanley Brothers.
Today, Welch and boyfriend and bandmate David Rawlings are two of the leaders of not only the alt-county movement but also perhaps the founding couple of the new acoustic movement. Younger bands like the Avett Brothers have paid homage. (Please don't blame them for Mumford & Sons.) Besides the Welch studio albums, the two have lent some songs to the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack, made two LPs under the name Dave Rawlings Machine and performed on The Decemberists’ “The King Is Dead” album.
The hinge between obscurity and influence was the album “Revival,” recorded with producer T Bone Burnett and released in 1996. This week Acony Records releases “Boots No. 1: The Official ‘Revival’ Bootleg,” a two-CD set with 21 new songs. (Roughly half of them are alternate versions of songs from the original album.)
Salon spoke to Welch from Nashville, where she and Rawlings live and run a recording studio. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Let's talk about “Revival” a little bit. Let's start by kind of setting the scene: This is 1996. I think it was probably recorded the same year. You had been out of Berklee for a few years. Nobody knew who you were outside, probably a small subculture. The alt country movement, the new acoustic movement, were really still in their infancy. . . . This was a long time ago. What was going on in your life, your mind, Dave's kind of musical vision at the time?
Well, I was really focused on trying to have a life, have a job in music. I'd played music . . . roughly the kind of music I play meaning acoustic guitar, folk-based, Woody Guthrie-based, Carter-family-based music since I was about 8. The very fact of attending Berklee College of Music was a change, a mental change on my part to actually try to make it my career. I knew I would always play music. I had done this in my bedroom my entire life and written songs.
Right in some form you would be playing. But would it be a career or just something you loved?
This included writing songs from about the time I was, well, about 12. I started keeping a songwriting notebook but I didn't play any of this stuff for anybody. And then going to music school was my sort of deciding that I wanted to actually do this for my living. Then I moved to Nashville, Dave moved to Nashville: That's just another decision in where is the type of music I play happening. The truth was, it was barely happening anywhere at that time.
Yeah there wasn't really this kind of movement. It seemed to be out of left field. I remember getting this record when it came out and I knew who Lucinda Williams was. Music writers and a handful of others knew her, but she wasn't a big star. So I was told, when “Revival” came out, “This is our generation's Lucinda Williams.” And it just seemed like the weirdest thing at the time.
Yeah, and that's a very good point. There were just sort of some lonely writers around and I was familiar with Lucinda also. I had what I’ll call those first two records. I knew about her and, in fact, the handful of open mic gigs I would have played in Boston prior to moving, which [I can] certainly count on one hand . . . My performing experience was very small but a Lucinda Williams song would have probably been on my set list.
Interesting, what would you have played?
I was playing “Crescent City” because I only had written two songs really that I was willing to play for people and so if I had to get up and play four songs —
You needed somebody else or their songs to help you out.
I would sing my two songs. I would play “Crescent City” by Lucinda Williams and I would play “I’ll Go on Downtown” by Robert Earl Keen. . . . I heard it on the Robert “Live” record. Funnily enough, no Townes was in my small covers list at the time. Then moving out from there, there would have been probably a Dylan song. I would play “Oxford Town” which is Dylan’s, and “Grip of Mountain Folk,” the Stanley Brothers song.
You are making an interesting point, which is that back then even among musicians and otherwise pretty sussed out people, there was a lot less knowledge of the backstory of this movement. I remember you or Dave telling me that when you were at Berklee, there was almost nobody who had even heard of the Stanley Brothers, that you were like the only people who knew those guys.
Oh yeah and that even continued when we got into the “Revival” sessions and we were making this stuff and we're spending so much time with T Bone and comparing musical notes with him. He was unaware — and this became a big deal later — he was unaware that Ralph Stanley had continued playing music after Carter died. He was unaware of the Ralph Stanley solo catalog and we so played that stuff for him and . . . anyway and all this stuff which becomes very important come "O Brother.”
I was about to say the other important line here. This is four or five years before “O Brother Where Art Thou” came out, which obviously created a huge awareness for some of those old people and this old-time style. You were really going against the grain making this record; I think we can at least agree on that one.
I remember feeling very strange. We felt like Martians and really important to have someone like T Bone say, like, "Hey check this out; this is cool" because it was odd. In Nashville we got here summer of ’92 —
Oh that early?
Yeah, summer of '92 and [we] just start meeting everybody. It's funny I just happened to see Lucinda the other night and we were comparing notes because she gets here just after us. She is here at the beginning of '93 or right around that same time and I was aware . . . this was part of . . . who we were identifying with. Lucinda was here. Townes was here —
Townes was in Nashville at the time?
Yes. Townes, we had the same booking agent and we were [gigging] with Townes. Dave was tuning Townes' guitar. We'd be backstage before you know. Townes would stick his guitar out and say, like, "Hey man, your guitar sounds really in tune. Can you tune my guitar?"
Wow, jeez, I never heard that. Townes was in a rough patch for some of those last years.
I liked him live even when it got rough to watch him; that's sort of when we knew him. He used to drink sometimes at Douglas Corner and he got . . . I'm not saying he came out to hear us. I think he was there when we played. I'm not going to go so far as to say he came out to hear us because I don't believe that's true.
The bar is what drew him and you happened to be playing there, you are saying.
Right, but he did come down. He did move there in front to one of the front tables and just watched our whole set and every time we would really zing a good harmony note, he would pound the table and howl like a dog.
Must have been a real honor. This was at the very beginning like the period around
This was at the very beginning. This is pre-“Revival.” This is I'm talking '92,'93 '94 when we were just around him and we were writing the songs that would become “Revival” and we were doing gigs with Townes and with Guy Clark, some shows opening for Emmy[lou Harris] . . .
The whole reason that we moved to Nashville was because you could see the path for a songwriter. I guess first and foremost I wanted to be a songwriter. I wanted to be a songwriter. The first thing was I needed songs before . . .
Job one was to move to Nashville, write songs. Then I got my record deal beginning in '95, so just like under three years out of school and I wrote about 30 [or] 35 songs. In those three years, I wrote about 30 or 35 songs. It's [the] most productive time of my life. I've never written that many —
Yeah I noticed you slowed down significantly, to your fans’ consternation. But that's an incredible outburst — 35 in how long?
In like three years; it's actually under three years. I was writing about 12 songs a year. It doesn't sound like that much but —
You are not quite beating the Beatles or Dylan in ’66 but it's still pretty good.
It's important to bring that many songs into the “Revival” sessions. It helped. . . . Many people these days would have made three records and on their own; they wouldn't have saved them up and I like to caution people.
This allowed you to pick the best ones, right?
Yeah because the earliest one of those would be “Orphan Girl.” If I'd put that out earlier, it would have . . . I don't know. I just think it's good to build up a head of steam and really get . . .
What do you mean when you say you're going to caution people? Are you talking about, Don't just make a record every six months because you've got some songs. You sort of wait till the right time to —
Yeah that's what I'm saying. Save them up and make sure that it's an artistic whole. It doesn't mean you have a record ready to go just because you have 14 songs.
I want to talk to you about one of the songs specifically, which I have to admit I never really listened to all that closely until this reissue came out, that I find now fascinating and multilayered — the song 'I Don't Want To Go Downtown.” Tell me a little about what went into that. How did that come about and what tradition is it in? It's almost like a Smiths song from the 1700s or something like that. It's just weird, kind of gloomy, timeless, but also very much small-town Southern in a way.
I was playing a lot of Memphis Minnie at the time and I was trying to learn some of her licks on guitar. I wanted to fancy up my guitar playing a little bit because I tend to gravitate towards the understated. I think I got a little tired of maybe having my guitar playing ignored because it goes down so easy. I went in search of a little flash and I shared some Memphis Minnie stuff and so that's where that lick came from. I was messing around with that stuff and there was probably sounds in my head.
The lyrics are kind of perfect, not depressing but they're just . . .
It's the woman who is avoiding the social life of the town center and so on because she doesn't want to bump into or hear about her ex.
Right, it's too painful so she can't really deal with it. She's like, "No, I'm just staying home."
She wouldn't engage with the world in any way . . .
Which I think is an honest — I think it's a true thing. I think I felt it. I think many people felt it. There are just nights when you are like, "No man I can't go out tonight. I don't have it in me."
It reminded me of the Smiths line: “I would go out tonight but I haven’t got a stitch to wear.”
You know, I never made that connection but I certainly have my mind with the Smiths.
In some ways your music is, despite a different idiom, emotionally congruent with the Smiths’ songs. And Johnny Marr is a big Bert Jansch fan. You are both sort of the children of Richard Thompson and Bert Jansch — in different ways and with other influences but there's common ground.
I was very familiar with Richard's stuff. There was a Richard Thompson show at Slim’s in San Francisco, a solo acoustic show that was a very influential show for me. I'm trying to place when this would have been. I'm thinking it was before I went to music school so it was very late '80s.
It's one of those shows that pushed me towards committing to do this for my life, turning it from my hobby to my life. . . . He was so fully formed. He was quite overwhelming and I was really, really excited to see him solo acoustic. I just wanted to see what happened when it was just him sitting on stage there doing his stuff. I remember “Vincent Black Lightning” was absolutely ecstatic; he was just transporting.
Speaking of guitar, I'm curious where you think Dave was at this point. He had the Epiphone archtop on the first record right?
Yeah but only just. He’d never played it.
My sense is that on that first record, Dave was less assertive with his fills and his weird little counterpoints. Do you think that he was a little more restrained on that album?
I just think we were so young. You have to remember that even though every show Dave and I had ever played we’d played as a duet, with “Revival” we were not setting out to make a duet record. We really wanted to capture how we played live and how these songs lived for us. But it was absolutely understood from the very beginning from the record company and from T Bone there were going to be other people on this. I think you hear Dave trying to find his place and everybody is treating me like the artist. I’m the singer. I’m the pictures on the cover. I’m the writer —
He’s the boyfriend.
Yes. Dave was trying to find his way and find his way on this new guitar —
Right. He had just gotten it.
He had played an acoustic flat top. All of these parts were arranged and composed on a Dreadnought flat top. And then it wasn’t until we got into the studio and he had brought this guitar that he had, this funny little archtop Epiphone, but he had never played it. He had literally strummed one cord on it and we both thought, That’s a cool sound.
It’s startling — and I think you guys probably knew this — to see you on the cover of this [reissue] with an electric guitar.
It’s a, what do they call it, a junior Les Paul Special because it’s the special Les Paul TV special, TV yellow so it’s supposed to not glare on television when [the] TV is black and white.
Oh wow! I can see that. Anyway, this is one of the — I guess you could call it the founding documents of the new acoustic movement. And you’re on the reissue with an electric guitar, and at least two of the songs, maybe three, are played on electric. I wonder why.
Because that’s the guitar I played on “Pass You By.” I did actually play electric rhythm on “Pass You By” on “Revival.” Yes, I think I’m on electric on a couple of other things on this bootleg because we tried anything we could think of and some of the songs weren’t really coming out of the Appalachian tradition. Some of them were much more out of the rockabilly side or as people have noticed like a Johnny Cash type from the “Dry Town” and “455 Rocket” or were like the electric flip side to folk music and mountain music.
When I interviewed the guys at Conor [Oberst]’s house a few years ago when “The Harrow and the Harvest” was coming — a record with a lot of space and very spare — you said you were totally uninterested in ever [going electric again]. You said you’d found your perfect sound with that record and you couldn’t imagine doing another record like “Soul Journey.” Have you rethought that? Do you think you’ll ever go back to make an electric [album] or is that what [the side project Dave Rawlings Machine] is for?
That was a very sweeping statement for me to have made!
Dave backed it up, and you were both like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is our sound. We’re not going to do that ‘Soul Journey’ bullshit again” effectively. Like that sounded to me what you were saying.
I know that we’ve felt that way for “The Harrow and the Harvest.” There was no doubt in our minds that that was going to be . . . We needed to put our duet sound on tape again. We had been playing and playing and playing and playing, and it had kind of developed and focused in to this core where it is true at that moment we were only interested in our duet. Usually the thing is we’re so motivated by the songs. “Soul Journey” was dictated by those songs, which wanted a backbeat and so we gave them a backbeat. I’m surprised at myself that I said that because normally what we say is “It all depends on the songs.”
Maybe I was saying [that] just for those songs and it was true. There was no question. We weren’t even going to mess around with anything. There was no experimentation for “Harrow and the Harvest.” It was Dave and I with our main guitars, at our main mics, doing this thing we’ve been kind of working for 20 years.
Finally, the bad news is there is not an exactly new Gillian and Dave record, and there hasn’t been one under your name —
No. You don’t get to know what I’m thinking about this year —
Right. It’s been since 2011, I think, that we’ve had a new record as Gillian Welch but we have not only had a Machine record and this new “Revival” set, but it’s called “Boots No. 1,” which suggests this isn’t the end of it. What can we look forward to from you guys?
I think we’ve got the next volume. I think we know what it is and we sort of started getting it together. This one needs to come out first and we see if people are interested, if they sort of care enough about looking behind the curtain. You know what I mean? I really don’t know.
You don’t know if it’s going to be every year, every two years or if every single album will get an anniversary thing like R.E.M. does? Or you’re still figuring out how it all works?
Yeah. I don’t think we’ll do the every-album anniversary thing. In fact what we have in mind for volume 2 would be nonchronological so that it would be clear. We’d be releasing anything that we had interest in and hopefully that people had interest in.