100 Greatest Women, #70: Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch at the Filmore Theater

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

#70

Gillian Welch

2008 Edition: New Entry

Long before Midland arrived to the consternation of authenticity fetishists, Gillian Welch and her partner-in-crime David Rawlings launched countless essays and editorials about the role of “authenticity” as a means to artistic agency.

Welch, adopted and raised in New York City by a family of entertainers, first cut her teeth as a musician as the bassist in a goth-punk band while she studied at the University of California – Santa Cruz, where she majored in photography. A roommate happened to play a recording by The Stanley Brothers, and Welch experienced the revelatory power of bluegrass music and never looked back. After finishing her degree, she relocated to Boston, where she enrolled at Berklee College Of Music to study songwriting. There, she first met David Rawlings, one of the few students interested in country and folk music styles, and they began one of the most enduring and distinctive musical partnerships of the last quarter century.

Welch and Rawlings took their partnership to Nashville in the mid-90s and built a reputation for their rootsy, minimalist performances as a duo, though they were only billed under Welch’s name. Producer T Bone Burnett was drawn to their aesthetic, and he agreed to produce the first Gillian Welch album. Burnett’s less-is-more approach to recording that debut album, Revival, was perfectly matched to Welch’s songwriting, which focused on bleak narratives of the disenfranchised rural poor.

The album was well-received in the burgeoning alt-country scene, which was quick to embrace Welch’s facility with genre conventions and her empathetic depictions of characters who had been lost in contemporary songwriting. The rock press, though, was less forgiving, with prominent critics like Robert Christgau and Ann Powers insisting that Welch’s efforts were strident and manufactured works of cultural appropriation.

Those criticisms persisted with Welch’s follow-up, Hell Among The Yearlings, an even more bleak depiction of rural poverty. Still, Welch’s reputation continued to build, and some of her loudest champions included like-minded artists such as Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller.

Welch was an obvious choice for a collaborator, then, when Burnett was named the executive producer of the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? In addition to serving as an associate producer on the soundtrack, Welch contributed two standout performances, joining Alison Krauss on a stirring rendition of the traditional hymn, “I’ll Fly Away,” and writing and singing the nearly a capella lullaby, “Nobody But The Baby,” with Krauss and Harris. The latter performance was central to one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, in which The Soggy Bottom Boys are lulled to sleep by three Sirens. Welch actually appeared in the film, as well, as a customer looking to purchase a vinyl pressing of “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” at a general store during a montage set to “I’ll Fly Away.”

The soundtrack turned into a bona fide sensation, winning Album of the Year honors at both the CMA and the Grammy awards, and selling nearly eight million copies. It also ignited a passion for roots music, bolstering Welch’s profile. Her 2001 album, Time (The Revelator), earned Welch a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Other artists continued to look to Welch as a source of inspiration at this time, with high-profile acts including Krauss, Trisha Yearwood, Miranda Lambert, and Allison Moorer among the many who covered her songs.

For 2003’s Soul Journey, Welch and Rawlings incorporated a full band for the first time. They returned to a more sparse production on 2011’s The Harrow & The Harvest, which debuted at #20 on The Billboard 200 albums chart, by far the highest debut of her career. In 2016, Welch commemorated the 20th anniversary of Revival with Boots No. 1: The Official Revival Bootleg, which included demo and alternate versions of the songs from Revival along with eight previously unreleased rarities.

Welch’s artistic cachet has deepened over the course of her career, and she has earned the respect of her contemporaries. In addition to those who have covered her songs, Welch has collaborated with artists like Old Crow Medicine Show, Solomon Burke, Ani DiFranco, The Decemberists, and “Doctor” Ralph Stanley.

Ultimately, Welch has proven that “authenticity” may be important to listeners with especially rigid genre definitions or to those who would fancy themselves gatekeepers, but affection for and empathy toward subject matter and genuine talent carry far more weight. Welch may not have had the birthright to country and roots music that some people wanted her to have, but she has staked a definitive claim as one of its staunchest defenders and most gifted performers.

Essential Singles

  • Orphan Girl, 1996
  • I’ll Fly Away (with Alison Krauss), 2000
  • Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby (with Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss), 2000
  • I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll, 2001
  • Dark Turn of Mind, 2017

Essential Albums

  • Revival (1996)
  • Hell Among the Yearlings (1998)
  • Time (The Revelator) (2001)
  • The Harrow & The Harvest (2011)

Industry Awards

  • Academy of Country Music Awards
    • Album of the Year
      • O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2001
  • Americana Music Honors & Awards
    • Artist of the Year, 2012
    • Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting (with David Rawlings), 2012
  • Country Music Association Awards
    • Album of the Year
      • O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2001
  • Grammy Awards
    • Album of the Year
      • O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2001
  • International Bluegrass Music Awards
    • Album of the Year
      • O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2001
      • Down From the Mountain, 2002
    • Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year
      • I’ll Fly Away (with Alison Krauss), 2001
    • Recorded Event of the Year
      • Clinch Mountain Sweethearts (with Ralph Stanley and Friends), 2001

 

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

Next: #69. Bobbie Gentry

Previous: #71. Kacey Musgraves

2 Comments

  1. Terrific choice

    She is a little it difficult to characterize but her integrity shines through her recordings

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