Gillian Welch remains a singular voice in American music. Her songs are never rushed, developing at a pace that is haunting; her albums arrive at a similarly sparse pace, each one commanding the listener's attention as they absorb her finely crafted lyrics and otherworldly tunes.
She and partner David Rawlings have released five albums under Welch's name and three under his, including 2017's Poor David's Almanack, in addition to appearances on a variety of soundtracks and tribute albums. The pair tours almost non-stop and will appear at Salina's Stiefel Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 15.
Welch will receive The Thomas Wolfe Prize on October 3. Established in 1999 via the Department of English at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the prize is awarded to writers with "distinguished bodies of work." Welch is the first musician to be awarded the prize.
She recently phoned KMUW to discuss her musical history and the very near future as well.
You met David Rawlings at Berklee College of Music. He's your partner 25 years on. What was that initial meeting like?
It was around 1990 or so. We met at an audition. There was one ensemble, which you had to audition for, which played country and bluegrass music. We met in the hallway at the audition and both got in. He was auditioning as a lead guitar player, I was just auditioning as a singer. When we first played together, it was with a whole band of people around us. It wasn't until we moved to Nashville in the summer of '92 that we first sang and played together just the two of us. It was a real revelation.
Berklee in those days was the domain of a lot of hard rock and jazz music. Not really the place for roots bands.
It was 70 percent jazz, 30 percent heavy metal. The guys playing metal and speed metal needed the proficiency. That was about the makeup of the school then. I have a very clear memory that there were very few women. Most of my classes had very few women. There were 10-20 people and I would be the only girl. And the only person with an acoustic guitar in a guitar class. A couple of my teachers asked me if I had an electric. "No, I don't!" [Laughs.]
You were playing this acoustic brand of music at a time when it wasn't fashionable. It was the early ‘90s. Everything was supposed to be loud. Was that an extension of your personality where you wanted to do something contrary or was it, ‘This is the music that really moves me and that I love and this is what I want to express?'
It wasn't to be a contrarian though I am an incredibly stubborn person. It was more that I had grown up playing acoustic guitar. I would come home from school and sit in my bedroom and sing James Taylor songs or Bob Dylan songs or Richard Thompson songs. And all kinds of folk songs. Carter Family songs. Woody Guthrie songs. It's really all I knew how to do and, funnily, it's still all I know how to do. I had that fortitude of spirit of when you have no other choice. It didn't matter how peculiar I felt. This is all I could do. It's really true, what they always say, that your limitations are often your greatest assets.
There's this element to your songs, this slowness. Everything will happen in its own time.
It just comes naturally to me. Other people couldn't play that slowly if their life depended upon it. They just get too uncomfortable. [Laughs.]
That is one thing that, artistically, most people are reaching for, to be themselves. They don't want to be somebody else. To have that kind of authenticity is … to you credit that for the longevity that you've had as well?
We're always driven by the music. Luckily, it seems to have worked and we still get to play. [Laughs.] That's no small feat in this day and age. It's always been difficult to make a living as a troubadour. I suppose if you look, historically, most troubadours have died penniless in the gutter. I do have a roof over my head. And more than that too. I've got a recording studio and a label. All of this stuff is our safety net. It's our way of remaining independent, so we can keep doing what we do. I'm mostly driven by, ‘What do I have to do so that nobody can stop me?' [Laughs.]
You have your own label now. It seems to me that you and Dave sort of watch over this very closely. You have a very deep hand in what's going on with it.
If you look on the inside ring, by the label, that's called a dead wax. It used to be that if you looked in the dead wax you'd often see the initials of the mastering engineer who'd actually cut the groove into the lacquer. If you look on any of our phonograph records, The Harrow and The Harvest or Soul Journey or Poor David's Almanack, you'll see MRWB, which stands for the four people that were in the room, cutting that groove: That's Stephen Marcussen, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Brent Bishop.
We cut that groove. We're very hands-on. And, actually, if you look at Soul Journey, there's five initials, another M, because one of the sides of Soul Journey had so many maneuvers, so many switches, that Stephen Marcussen had to call his young son, Rufus, in because we needed another pair of hands. One of the sides of Soul Journey has five people responsible for cutting that groove.
I wanted to close out by asking you about the Thomas Wolfe Prize. Congratulations.
It's incredible. Thank you. It means a lot, coming out of North Carolina, and it means a lot coming in the name of Thomas Wolfe, who lives in my house. I have his books on my shelf and at least a couple of months out of the year they are right by my bedside table. I've read and re-read Look Homeward, Angel.. It goes very deep with me.
I like to think that they could tell in my writing, my admiration for the man and my respect for his work and his storytelling. I'm pretty excited to be the first musician to ever receive that literary award. I hope they don't expect me to give an insightful speech when I go accept it! [Laughs.] We're just going to go and talk a little, answer a few questions and play some songs.