Songs for the New Depression: Americana Icon Gillian Welch Storms Charts, Brings Stark Songs to DC

08/03/2011 10:00 am ET | Updated Oct 03, 2011
  • Art Levine Contributing Editor, The Washington Monthly

With the economy teetering on collapse with the new debt deal, music fans can prepare for the mournful times ahead by listening to the sad, evocative songs of Gillian Welch, whose sound is steeped in Depression-era bluegrass but updated for today's hard times. Yet, in performance, her partner David Rawlings's burning guitar runs and the hopeful, rhythmic and, at times, upbeat spirit of rural Southern gospel courses through the mostly secular old-timey sounds they've retooled for the modern era.

On Tuesday night, she brought her music -- and a tour that's been selling out several venues -- to the Washington area at the Strathmore concert hall in Bethesda, Maryland. This past weekend she appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and enraptured the crowd as recorded by NPR.

With their perfect blend of melancholy voices, guitars and the occasional banjo, Gillian Welch and partner David Rawlings have ended the long wait of roots music fans for original music from Welch. The duo was greeted with exultant cheers, applause and several standing ovations in a long set that showcased their best songs in a near-perfect acoustic setting that Gillian praised a few times from the stage. She even danced some clogging steps and whirled around while performing a brisk gospel number, "Six White Horses," from the new albums, featuring her slapping her knees and clapping along while singing the melody to Rawlings's banjo.

But their show wasn't all made up of older song styles made new again. Case in point: In one of the encores, she did a powerful version of the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," with Gillian voicing with a stunning intensity at the end, "Feed your head!" -- a far cry, literally, from the gentler harmonies earlier in their concert.

She ended her set with the gospel song, "I'll Fly Away," from the O Brother Where Art Thou?album she co-produced, leaving her audience with some cheer amid another bleak era.

Amazingly enough, for an independently released album by a relatively little-known Americana artist, her new album debuted at #20 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart.

And if critical reaction is any guide, The Harrow and The Harvest is winning enough praise to propel the CD forward in a time of free-fall for the music industry. Part of their strategy was to sponsor "listening parties" at independent music stores, with Music Millennium in Portland being among the first stores in the country, on June 19, to sponsor the promotion for the album officially released last month, June 28. Although skeptical about the predatory role of piracy in undermining professional musicians, as she eloquently described in the song "Everything is Free," she also turned to NPR to showcase the album through streaming audio in their First Listen series, as well as on Fresh Air. It's well worth listening to -- and buying. (You can buy the CD and a digital download in the format of your choice directly from her website, as well as, of course, from Amazon, your local record store and iTunes.)

The long wait -- eight years -- for original material from Welch (not counting her work on Rawlings's recent solo CD) was due to a perfectionism that's reminiscent of early Lucinda Williams. In this case, Welch wanted to make sure that the songs were good enough to release, unlike their friend, the over-prolific Ryan Adams, who cheapened his reputation by releasing too much music in too many styles, and never achieved the heights of his work in Whiskeytown and the CD Heartbreaker. But if the critics are right about Welch's new release, it was well worth the wait. Indeed, one British-based review aggregator site, AnyDecentMusic, ranks it as the best-reviewed new release in the world, beating out Bon Iver.

Here are some sample raves, with original reviews and links available at
The Independent (UK), [rating] 100: "On this, Gillian Welch's fifth album, the familiar blending of traditional sounds and moods with modern sensibilities is effortlessly sustained through songs like the mordant "The Way It Goes" ("Betsy Johnson bought the farm, stuck a needle in her arm, that's the way that it goes")."

The Telegraph (UK), 100: "There cannot be another musical duet around at the moment who are able to make two acoustic guitars and two voices produce a sound that is so subtle and yet powerful."

MusicOMH , 100: "This is one of the most defiantly traditional, non-radical and deceptively simple albums in recent memory."

The American-based Paste liked it too, 90:

While it's true that Gillian Welch isn't the first artist to use the rugged quality of early American folk music -- with its rich iconography and imagery -- as inspiration, what separates her from other artists who have done so is the deftness with which she employs familiar themes from archaic songs and adapts them to reflect the concerns of a person living in the 21st century. It's a difficult conceit to pull off, but on song after song, Welch balances the ancient and the modern with an ease and grace that scarcely seems possible...

Listening to these songs, one can hear that the eight years taken between releases has caused Gillian Welch to ruminate and pour all of her weighing up and accounting of life's sad twists and turns into one of her best albums. The Harrow & The Harvest is simply one of the richest, most expansive roots albums to be released in some time.

Even though, in an earlier song, she wrote how piracy was undercutting her work, this time around, the critical reaction is so strong it might actually prompt enough people to legally buy or download the CD if they want to ensure they'll hear more from her in the future. That way, we won't be facing a reluctance to release more songs worthy of her high standards:

Everything is free now
That's what they say
Everything I ever done
Gotta give it away.
Someone hit the big score
They figured it out
They were gonna do it anyway
Even if doesn't pay.

Every day I wake up
Humming a song
But I don't need to run around
I just stay home.
Sing a little love song
My love and myself
If there's something that you want to hear
You can sing it yourself.

Let's hope that won't happen. We don't want to wait another eight years for an album from the incomparable Gillian Welch, especially in times like these.

This article has been updated from one that originally appeared on the all-genre Oregon Music News website.