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As album-closing songs go, they don’t get much more epic than “I Dream A Highway,” the 14-and-a-half minute track that ends Gillian Welch’s 2001 album Time (The Revelator.) It’s a track that’s memorable for far more than its length. Each of the song’s eleven verses and six refrains feels necessary, as if you removed one, the rest would tumble, Jenga-like, in a heap of disparate images and rhymes.
Welch intended the song to be a culmination of everything that comprised Time (The Revelator), which she wrote and performed with steady collaborator Dave Rawlings. As she told Canada’s Exclaim website, “I Dream A Highway” turned out to be a case of more is more.
“It just happened that all these lyrics I was writing belonged in that song. I tried to edit things out but it didn’t make it better,” Welch remembered. “In fact, it was the opposite; I realized that everything this record was about was in that song. Dave and I ultimately decided that we couldn’t put it on unless the rest of the record felt complete, so if people want to stop it at ‘Everything Is Free’ (the penultimate track on the album), that’s fine. ‘I Dream A Highway’ is more of a coda to the whole thing.”
Yet the song is such a mesmeric, monumental achievement that another way to look at it is that the rest of the album is a prelude to it. Welch’s verses each tell a story all their own, yet when pulled together they create parallel tales of a country and an individual within it slowly going astray. “Saw a wheel inside a wheel, heard a call within a call,” Welch sings at one point, illustrating the duality the song evinces.
Music plays a big part of Welch’s tapestry. She name-drops country legends Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, and Emmylou Harris and references folk songs like “John Henry” and “Jack Of Diamonds” as exemplars of integrity and truth, while also hinting that it’s not like it used to be; “The Grand Old Opry’s got a brand new band,” she muses, which may be why her narrator considers a move to Memphis. Religious imagery can be found throughout the song as well, from Lazarus’ not-so scot-free resurrection (“Let me see the mark that death has made”) to the perilous state of the narrator’s soul which, depending on the refrain, longs to be rested, arrested, convalesced and molested.
The narrator, given heart and soul by Welch’s world-weary vocal, travels the song’s landscape bemused and always on the verge of self-destruction. In the final verse, she wonders how long this can go on: “What will sustain us through the winter?/ Where did last year’s lessons go?” Yet her reverie persists: “I dream a highway back to you/ A winding ribbon with a band of gold.”
Maybe the answers await at the end of that symbolic road. Or maybe there lies salvation, as Welch’s final plea is for “A silver vision come and bless my soul.” “I Dream A Highway” is one of those songs that invite all kinds of analyses and interpretations. But it’s also a good idea to stop pondering it and let it wash over you every once in a while in all its epic melancholy. At the end of it you’ll likely be of the opinion that 14-and-a-half minutes wasn’t near long enough.