The turn of century proved to be a fertile time for the Americana music scene. The early 2000s saw the likes of Drive By Truckers and Ryan Adams stamping their name on the scene internationally with their early, widely acclaimed albums and Lucinda Williams was starting to capitalise on the success of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Bands such as Richmond Fontaine and Lucero were staking their claim as likely newcomers and Wilco were beginning to explore the wider possibilities of the genre.
in 2001 Gillian Welch had already released two albums and been playing live for more than a decade. It was meeting guitarist David Rawlings at Berklee College of Music in Boston that solidified her growing passion for bluegrass, folk and country music and the pair soon began working together after they had both separately relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. Her first two albums, Revival and Hell Among The Yearlings, established her as a dark, poetic and timeless songwriter with a voice that could break and heal hearts. An appearance on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack catapulted her into the consciousness of a global audience, far greater than the cosier roots music community. That set the stage for her next album, the spellbinding and mesmerising collection of ten songs that comprise Time (The Revelator).
From first listen it was clear that ‘timeless’ was an apt description of the sound and emotional resonance of these songs, produced by David Rawlings. Familiar melancholic melodies, traditional acoustic guitar compositions, subject matter that covered historical events such as the Titanic disaster and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, American folk hero John Henry and the iconic Elvis Presley. Steeped in American history and presented in austere, heartbreakingly beautiful traditional songwriting musical forms, these songs on the surface don’t appear to possess the ingredients to separate them from thousands of songs that have come before.
Where the real magic lies is in the way that Welch’s voice dances, embraces, sways and intertwines with Rawlings guitar playing. Set in a hazy American landscape, it’s a quixotic blend that nears perfection courtesy of the way Welch’s voice works as an instrument as effectively as Rawlings’ guitar is another ‘voice’ – eloquent, lithe, versatile and full of personality. ‘My First Lover’ is a perfect example of both voice and instrument as equally essential ingredients. Right across the album Welch’s voice drifts and serenades like a warm, meditational tonal breeze or the gentle rise and fall of a calm ocean. She’s unhurried, operating in her own time zone, somewhere between sad remembrance and wistful nostalgia.
The opening title track has rightfully become a modern classic in the intervening 22 years, a gold star example of Americana music that combines bluegrass, folk and country and yearning soul without the aid of additional musicians, production tricks or a radio friendly arrangement. Across six minutes we’re treated to spiralling solos from Rawlings that amplify and enhance Welch’s lyrical response to questions of her authenticity and how truth and integrity reveals itself in time.
On ‘Red Clay Halo’ the duo show they’re not all dustbowl ballads and Appalachian songs of sorrow, dialling up the tempo into a brisk and nimble workout. ‘I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll’ is a playful paean to the joys of rock n roll, recorded live at the Ryman Auditorium. Welch has said that “As opposed to being little tiny folk songs or traditional songs, they’re really tiny rock songs. They’re just performed in this acoustic setting. In our heads we went electric without changing instruments.” That clearly comes through in that song and indeed ‘Elvis Presley Blues’, a hypnotic, gently droning and stunning example of their seamless vocal harmonies.
‘Everything Is Free’ is another song that has become one of Welch’s most loved and covered (Lisa Mitchell, Courtney Barnett, Father John Misty, Conor Oberst) compositions, a cautionary and regret-filled take on the modern devaluation of music in the digital age. Welch conveys the cultural significance and the resulting sense of loss with deep emotional resonance.
In the epic 14 minute closing track ‘I Dream A Highway’, a grand and sweeping panoramic shot of the American landscape that rolls on like scenes from a train window dissecting open prairie and plains. Welch surveys the great expanse, finding paths and winding rivers connecting changing music scenes, legendary artists and the sacrifices of musical trailblazers. In doing so she hints at her and Rawlings’ modus operandi – their desire to progress traditional music while retaining links to its origins and its sense of wonder and imagination – harnessing the heartache and the dream.
In the ensuing two decades, Welch and Rawlings have taken their time to craft each new release. Their slow prolificacy can be a frustration for some but the reward is always immense. Each release and revelatory live show, such as their incredible tour of Australia in 2016, provides another deep insight into the life-affirming music of a once in a generation artist.