Gillian Welch & David Rawlings in Photos
It is difficult to to think of anything new or different to say about Gillian Welch and David Rawlings that has not already been said. So, I’ll just condense Robyn Hitchcock’s hymn to his longtime friends and sometime collaborators when he handed them a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at the Americana Music Association Award Show last September at the Ryman:
They’ve distilled so much of what America herself has distilled musically, time out of mind from the lake of mirrors that goes so deep you can’t distinguish anything. Their alchemy has refined it into something so simple that nobody ever thought of it before… Like a jewel they have many facets. They may appear as an old time Appalachian pair, stood by a wooden wagon. Or as ’90s indie rockers, finding the essence of a Radiohead song…She: the rhythm section, hair flowing like a Munch painting, slumped in spent ecstasy over her guitar. He: spinning out a cascade of notes from beneath his Freewheelin’ Franklin hat, like an oddly sober Jerry Garcia. They are two beings in one entity. They are what John and Yoko might have been if they’d both played the guitar.
Their story is well-known and often told by them on stage, from Welch having written “Orphan Girl” while cleaning hotel toilets to moving to Nashville in 1992 not knowing the town had become passé. They tell how that song unbelievably lost the MerleFest Songwriting Contest while another, less intriguing, song of theirs won. Then how “Orphan Girl” was on Emmylou’s Harris’ seminal Wrecking Ball, where it held its own alongside Dylan, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and Jimi Hendrix, among others.
But the most intriguing story Welch tells is of their early days in Nashville, making the rounds when more than one well-meaning, well-intentioned prospective manager/agent told her that he could do something with her as a solo artist but she had to ditch the guitar player.
That, of course, was a ludicrous suggestion. Especially now, as we have all witnessed how Rawlings’ signature guitar work takes the songs to another plane. Not only are Welch and Rawlings two halves of a whole, but their whole is the personification of musical quantum mechanics. Single-handedly, they reintroduced the duo — a concept that lay dormant for decades since Simon & Garfunkel — and now, as Hitchcock so astutely noted, they are being openly copied.
I, too, have been a longtime fan. I first saw them in Nashville over 20 years ago. Their shows are full of fans so adoring and reverential that we seem to be cast in some group spell where nothing exists outside the shared reality of their performance.
I remember a night at MerleFest when they played the Cabin Stage — a time when most folks get up to stretch and take noisy breaks — and you could hear a pin drop as we all attentively listened in an amber silence. Not since the early days of Joni Mitchell had I ever heard an audience that quiet, let alone a large outdoor one.
Their effect on critics and music insiders is no less profound. When introducing them at a show a few nights after they received their AMA Lifetime Achievement Award, Jed Hilly, executive director of the AMA, was downright giddy. He made no attempt to hide it. No Depression has been no less demonstrative over the years in its many articles about the pair. Welch graced the cover of one of the print issues during the magazine’s original run. And let me add, lest I forget, that the ND community also selected The Harrow and the Harvest as the Album of the Year in 2011 and hailed Time (The Revelator) as Album of the Decade.
Not willing to rest on their laurels, the pair dropped a new Dave Rawlings Machine record during the AMA Festival and just finished a long US tour this past Saturday. Both as a duo and as The Machine, they begin a tour of New Zealand and Australia this Thursday.
Here then, is another acknowledgement from ND to the “time out of mind from the lake of mirrors” that is Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.