Gillian Welch Comes Down From The Mountain

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Videos by American Songwriter

“We really got our ya-ya’s out on Dave’s record,” Welch jokes. “He’s a live wire, a much more mercurial vocalist than I am, and he needed a little bit more of a musical bed to sing over. I loved doing that album, that tour, those full-band arrangements with [Old Crow bandmates] Ketch, Willie, and Morgan. It shook everything up in a good way. But we’ve always used a more stripped-down approach whenever I’m singing, and returning to that kind of sound was fascinating. We felt fluent again with our songwriting, and this new stuff started to come pretty quickly.”

Several years of discarded songs came to a close in October 2010. Riding high on their new songwriting streak, Welch and Rawlings spent the next four months penning tunes about southern towns, former flames, and country life. Most of the material was brand new. “The Way It Will Be,” now several years old, also made the cut, and the half-finished “Hard Times (Ain’t Gonna Rule My Mind)” was reworked into one of the album’s emotional peaks.

“I’d started writing ‘Hard Times’ when I was making my own record,” Rawlings remembers. “Levon Helm was supposed to come to Nashville and play drums on a couple things, possibly this new song. As it turns out, Levon got laryngitis and had to rush back to Woodstock, and the song just stalled out after that. Months later, we were in Glenwood Springs when I took out the banjo and started picking at the song again. I couldn’t exactly remember how it went, and sometimes that’s good, because you come to the song remembering nothing but the essence of it. You’ve lost some of the details that were distracting you from what’s most important.”

Rawlings experimented with a minor key intro and changed the song’s rhythm. The next morning, he came up with a refrain. “Hard Times” was reborn.

“It was just this endless back-and-forth between the two of us,” Welch says of the process. “I remember hearing stories about The Basement Tapes, where one of the guys would start writing something and leave it on the kitchen table and go to bed, only to wake up the next morning and realize someone else had written another section. That’s pretty much how everything went. It’s our most intertwined, co-authored, jointly-composed album.”

It’s also one of their best. For those who want a quick Gillian Welch fix, having waited far too long for another collection of neo-mountain music, The Harrow & The Harvest delivers the usual goods. The harmonies are spot-on: frequent but not overused, gorgeous in their down-home simplicity, with the sort of familiar grace that only seems to exist between singers who are either related or in love. The guitars are similarly intimate, anchored in the interplay between both players.

Still, The Harrow & The Harvest is an album that unveils all its charms with repeated listens. There are deep-rooted metaphors here, from the album’s title – “It seemed to address the work, the time,  the effort that went into this… and hopefully we’re coming up on the harvest now,” Welch explains – to the ying and yang of the tracklist itself, which is split into a minor-key first half and a major-key conclusion. Like the years that led up to the album’s release, The Harrow & The Harvest explores darker themes before ending on an upbeat note, with Welch declaring, “People oughta stick together – that’s the way to make a crowd,” during the casual stroll of closing number “The Way The Whole Thing Ends.” And for those keeping score, Rawlings’ flatpicking has never sounded better.

“The connection that man has with his Epiphone is something I always aspire to,” says John Paul White, guitarist for The Civil Wars. “His playing is a constant source of inspiration… And on top of that, [he’s] a ridiculously underrated singer. Now that I think of it, I kinda hate the guy.”

The Civil Wars, a folk duo featuring White and co-vocalist Joy Williams, are proof that Gillian Welch’s influence hasn’t diminished during her absence. Earlier this year, Williams and White cracked the Billboard Top 20 with their debut album, Barton Hollow, whose acoustic songs bear more than a slight resemblance to those in Welch’s discography. The two are effusive with their praise.

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