Behind The Song: Gillian Welch, “Look At Miss Ohio”

Early in her career, record company executives, confused by Gillian Welch’s decision to make music that often only featured herself and collaborator David Rawlings, suggested to her that she record with a full band. As she told Today back in 2003 about the full-band approach, “It doesn’t seem to serve the songs. They’re lonesome stories. They get less lonesome the more people you have.”

Earlier that year, Welch had released Soul Journey, an album that filled the sound out somewhat but still relied mostly on her strumming, Rawlings’ emotive guitar fills and lot of open spaces. And it’s hard to argue against that approach when you hear the results, especially on that album’s unforgettable opening track “Look At Miss Ohio.”

If you were only guessing from the song’s title, you might expect a condescending look at a beauty queen. For one, the Miss Ohio title seems ceremonial at best, meant to represent the kind of All-American girl of whom everything is expected with the possible exception of individualism. And Welch never judges the character, simply telling her story in a fashion that’s so economical it’s practically minimalist. Yet she says all she needs to say.

It helps that she has a refrain that does a lot of the heavy lifting. “Oh me oh my oh, look at Miss Ohio,” she sings, her voice falling from a high trill to lower, confidential tones for the next lines: “She’s a running around with the rag top down/ She says I wanna do right but not right now.” In those three lines, Welch has established the judgmental stance of the townsfolk, the beauty queen’s behavior which might not be pageant-approved, and her intention to clean up her act, but only after living a little first.

In the verses, Welch adds some details, like an impulsive trip to Georgia (partially and cleverly rhyming “Atlanta” and “fantasy”), the warmer climate promising hotter times than her chilly Midwestern home. The narrator also addresses what seems to be her ex-boyfriend, the one who had his arm around her like “a regimental soldier,” an image that suggests safety, formality, and not an ounce of fun. It’s in that context that Mama enters the picture, “pushing that wedding gown” like a pesky salesman that you can’t shake.

Of course, other listeners might interpret the song differently; such is the beauty of Welch’s construction that it allows for multiple takes. Rawlings certainly offers his own commentary with his simple, unshowy playing that nonetheless suggests all kinds of emotional avenues, which is right in tune with the less-is-more approach of the lyrics.

The last verse hints at some kind of trouble that Miss Ohio has encountered, a jam from which she needs to extricate herself. Bur she insists that she can do so without any help, thank you: “I know all about it, so you don’t have to shout it/ I’m gonna straighten it out somehow.” You can decide for yourself how deep that trouble is and if she’ll indeed set it right; Welch seems okay with it no matter how it turns out.

The songwriter basically creates a world of possibilities and outcomes for the character, which is somehow fitting considering she has reached a crossroads in her young life. “Look At Miss Ohio” is one of Gillian Welch’s “lonesome stories,” and this one is somehow more captivating for not having a clear ending.

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