Saturday, January 19, 2008

Covered In Folk: Gillian Welch
(Glen Phillips, Ryan Adams, Alison Krauss, Crooked Still)


Hope no one minds an early "Sunday" post this week; my brother and his wife are on their way in from Brooklyn for the long weekend, and I don't get to see them as often as I'd like. I'll have a short post up for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, if I can; in the meantime, enjoy today's feature on "American Primitive" folkartist Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings, the tenth post in our popular Covered in Folk series, where we pay tribute to the songwriting talents of a single artist.



I saw Gillian Welch at the Green River Festival a while back, and it was a revelation. From ten rows back, her summer dress blowing in the hot breeze, her twanged voice, the doubled guitars, her narratives of Southern poverty and pain, all conspired to bring the hot scent of jasmine and Southern dust on the breeze even as we lounged on the New England grass. The crowd swelled. The rest of the afternoon passed in a haze.

Though it was her vocal talents in O Brother, Where Art Thou which put her on a mass-marketable par with Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris, it was clear to anyone watching that, as a musical phenomenon, Gillian Welch was a force to be reckoned with in the growing americana folk movement.

More often than not, Gillian Welch is the performing name for two musicians, Welch herself and her ubiquitous partner David Rawlings; when they work with others each gets billing, but in performance as a duo, the pronoun "she" is the standard convention. Welch appears as frontwoman, and can certainly stand her own as a powerful force in a particular subgenre of american folk music, but they share writing credit on many songs, and their harmonies -- vocal and guitar -- are notable and recognizable.

And what is the Gillian Welch sound? Welch's voice is well-suited for the raw, backporch paces she puts it through; together, as songwriters and performers, these two musicians build on this vocal base to create an americana sound Welch calls "American Primitive", something simultanously sparer and more richly nuanced than anything a solo artist could do with guitar or voice. Call it old-timey folk -- unproduced and jangly, sparse and stripped down from the more traditional old-timey sound of groups like Old Crow Medicine Show, Welch and Rawlings' musical compatriots and touring partners.

There are times when Gillian Welch sounds like an old Alan Lomax field recording, something timeless, raw and elegant in its simplicity and honest rough presentation. The lyrics, too, tend towards the trope and narrative themes -- rural life, loss and hardship -- of early American southern field folk. Given all that, it's no wonder that over the last decade or so, since even before the release of debut album Revival in 1996, the folk end of the americana movement has begun to pick up her songs and give them the traditional treatment.

Today, some select covers from the increasingly vast spectrum of sound that pays tribute to this weathered, shy, still-young matriarch of the new americana folk set. Interesting, how many retain the original Welch/Rawlings close harmonies, as if the tenor echo were as much a part of the original text to be covered as the powerful words, melody, and chord. Perhaps it is.

  • Crooked Still, Orphan Girl
  • Emmylou Harris, Orphan Girl
  • Dakota Blonde, Orphan Girl
    Crooked Still hops with cello, banjo and bass; Emmylou Harris fills out the sound in her inimitable style; newcomers Dakota Blonde mourn a life alone with accordian and guitar and drumthunder. The infinite possibility of nuance and power keeps this oft-covered, well-worn tune fresh, despite its weary lyric.

  • Ryan Adams, Revelator
  • Glen Phillips, Revelator
    Two electrified covers which take this heavy tune to its natural folk rock conclusion. Alt-country rocker Ryan Adams' shortened version, off the Destroyer Sessions, is full-on Neil Young, guitars and vocals tangled up in angst. Singer-songwriter and ex-Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips' version is darker, more pensive, more beautiful.

  • Peter Mulvey, Caleb Meyer
  • Red Molly, Caleb Meyer
    At first listen, Peter Mulvey's classically-fingerpicked version teeters on the overly maudlin, and previously-posted girlgroup Red Molly's three-voiced approach seems to cost them emotive potential. But listen again -- these grow on you.

  • Alison Krauss & Union Station, New Favorite
    Fellow Gillian Welch O Brother, Where Are Thou muse Alison Krauss and her star-studded band Union Station make a sweet live bluegrass ballad of an old-timey wallflower's love song.

  • Elizabeth Mitchell, Winter's Come and Gone
    Kidfolk queen Elizabeth Mitchell brings us a light-hearted tale well-suited for the bedtime ears of the next generation of traditional folk fans.

  • Elan Mehler Quartet, Elvis Presley Blues
    This sultry gospel-jazz take from the Elan Mehler Quartet is sweet with breathy sax and slow-rolling piano. It isn't folk, but it makes the perfect capstone to any set of Gillian Welch covers.


Don't forget to click on artist names above to purchase the best of the modern folk world from bluegrass to bluesfolk direct from the source. And, if you don't already have them, buy Gillian Welch's four incredible albums direct from her website.


Today's bonus coversongs hold back a bit, that we might eventually bring you a full post of Gillian Welch covering other artists. But here's two collaborative efforts that give Rawlings and Welch their own billing, to tide you over until then:

41 comments:

Matthew said...

Certainly you've heard the Over the Rhine version of Orphan Girl?

boyhowdy said...

I have, Matthew...but having come late to the OtR table, I cannot post it, as I do not have it. Sniff...

If anyone HAS the OtR version, and would send it along, I'd be much obliged!

phantasmagorienne said...

Oh, this is a good one. I heard both Crooked Still's "Orphan Girl" and Red Molly's "Caleb Meyer" at separate folk music festivals last summer and loved the both of them. Red Molly's spare harmonies are positively spooky.

I've got a version of Over the Rhine's "Orphan Girl", but not, I think, the version on the Live From Nowhere album, which probably has better sound quality (though mine isn't bad) -- if no-one sends along the other, I'll send you mine. :)

- Jolene

Erin said...

You know what would be another really great song when you're talking about Gillian Welch? Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel". That's the song of my first year of college, right there. And I'm still waiting on that Jonatha Brooke cover of my favorite ever Simon and Gfunk song, "Bleecker Street".

boyhowdy said...

Erin: I'm saving the OCMS stuff for the bonus section of a post on Gillian Welch covering other folks to be named later. But the S&G post will likely be up in the next week or so, so stay tuned!

As for the Over the Rhine cover: I've managed to find a live copy of the song, but it's warbly and a bit unfocused. Suspect that's what Jolene had, too. Anyone got a copy of the "Live From Nowhere" version they want to share?

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