April, 23, 2020, by Darren Clarke
“Whatever happens in the ear to people listening profoundly to each other is happening in an extreme fashion between them… you know not to interrupt.”
Ken Welch, New Yorker interview 2004
Gillian Welch’s fathers’ observation on watching his daughter rehearse with David Rawlings is a fine introduction to the magic created in their music, “It’s like they are breathing together, they get lost in there.”
I made the playlist that accompanies this blog prior to driving my wife to the airport in Toronto last September. Driving back home, at a standstill in the maddening maelstrom that is Toronto traffic, the song Revelator came on and melted away all my tension and frustration.
“A typical Welch song has the tempo of a slow heartbeat.”
Alec Wilkinson, New Yorker 2004
As the song wandered in and out of convention, finding sublimely glorious turns in structure, I was undone, I was free, I was in tears.
Life provides us with an abundance of things to love for an abundance of reasons. We love things because they thrill us, they move us, they relate to us, they open up possibilities to us. There’s more of course but those are the things that jump out at me. I am always drawn to artists that combine the earthy with the majestic, the simple with the complex, the tangible with the intangible. And this is what Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have been providing us with since they came together in the early nineties- accessible, transcendent, melodies and meanings accompanied by both subtle and overt divergence from traditional form that always firmly resonate with Truth.
More than most any artist I listen to the musical expression of the relationship between Welch and Rawlings, the gems they seemingly effortlessly mine and offer to the world, convey more of the unbearable lightness of being alive than most anything else you can lay ears, eyes, heart and soul on.
True to form, their music, the gorgeous heartbeat timed meanderings through life, liberty and the faltering pursuit of something to hang your hat on, even at its’ most complex is predicated upon something as timeless and universally relatable as a love story.
“I’m an indisguisable shade of twilight.
Any second now, I’m gonna turn myself on.
In the blue display of the cool cathode ray,
I dream a highway back to you.”
Gillian Welch, I Dream a Highway
Whenever I do one of these playlists mostly what I want to say is- Just listen to the damned music! Because yeah there’s a zillion compellingly inglorious tales of the Replacements alcohol fuelled shows that lurched and fumbled to legendarily messy ends and sure Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire at Monterey and apparently had acid in his headband at Woodstock but really in the end that’s not the stuff that keeps the wonder afloat. The music, the stuff that takes me places, moves me, makes me jump up and down in joy, makes me cry in Toronto traffic (in a good way as opposed to the usual bad way I cry in Toronto traffic), that’s what it’s all about. Writing about the music and people who create it at best provides a context, a jump off point to further your appreciation of the music. Fundamentally though the music lives or dies on its’ own merit, either the music is great or it isn’t.
It’s like a wine tasting right? Yeah, I appreciate the guided tour of where the grapes were grown and what the wine is designed to be pared with etc., there’s an art to crafting an accompanying narrative but either it sparks my pallet and warms my chest or it don’t.
“He (Rawlings) plays with his eyes closed and an impassive expression on his face. He stands on his toes and sways, all of which helps cultivate what Welch affectionately describes as “the Dave Rawlings mystique.”
Alec Wilkinson, New Yorker 2004
So let me tell you the simple love story of Rawlings and Welch. When Welch was first starting out as a bluegrass/folk act with Rawlings she was often told that success in Nashville would be predicated upon losing Rawlings. The New Yorker article on the two framed it best, “Almost from the start, people tried to separate them. After about a year, Welch found a manager, Denise Stiff. “I must have had a hundred people say to me, ‘Lose the guitar player,’ ” Stiff said. Rawlings draws too much attention from Welch, they said. Or, he plays twenty notes where ten will do.”
Welch refused the notion of making music without her unconventional partner. Maybe it was stubbornness, maybe it was conviction in their music, maybe it was a whack of things but without a doubt it was love. And it’s that love that provides the honesty in what they do. The music is as genuine a manifestation of who these two people are and what moves them as can be provided to a listener. It’s not two people doing what an agent or record producer directed them to do, in fact it seems almost void of any kind of any outside consideration, instead it’s two people who deeply connect sharing the unique current of who they are together as honestly as possible.
“I came to these sounds and this whole genre or whatever because I needed it, if you understand me. This is how I interface with the world. There’s nothing more powerful than our weaknesses and liabilities, you know?”
Gillian Welch (Aquarium Drunkard Interview)
The forces of the mundane, of the average, of the utterly replaceable and unexceptional are great in number, influence and their determination to consign the world to the limits of their imagination. Welch and Rawlings overcame that mindless attempt at limiting their creativity to deliver us a compassionate look at the struggles of being. Of just being. They deliver unconventional twists via a conventional form and their slightly off-kilter take on American bluegrass/folk music, delivered via acutely tuning into themselves, into each other, is what levitates me out of the mundane, out of the maddening crowd, out of standstill traffic jams, to love.
Oh and hey, if you’re only going to check out one album by Welch and Rawlings, their 2003, Time (The Revelator) album is the way to go. The record is miles and miles of gorgeous Sunday afternoon drive from its’ beginning with the song Revelator through to its’ end with the epic, hypnotic, I Dream a Highway.
(Note- Featured image pic via Wikicommons. And clearly this blog borrows heavily from the content in Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker interview with Rawlings and Welch from 2004- I can’t recommend checking out the full interview enough here-> https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/09/20/the-ghostly-ones)