Brooding, mythical balladeers have long been a part of the American soundscape: Over the last three decades, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen have all made contributions to the genre. Now, however, 36-year-old Gillian Welch threatens to usurp their collective hold on the scene. The Nashville transplant (from California by way of Boston) has released just four albums over the last eight years, but her explorations into the poignant -- and oftentimes dark -- world of unconventional folk-rock have left a considerable mark.
The lanky, brunette Welch plays guitar and sings; usually, her partner, David Rawlings, provides the sole accompaniment on another guitar. They recorded her debut with a full band (1996's Revival) then stepped back to cut two albums as a duo: '98's Hell Among the Yearlings and 2001's Time (The Revelator). Some of Welch's songs ended up on the soundtrack for the Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and the iconoclast soon found herself appearing at the Country Music Association Awards and performing for thousands of fans on the road.
Lately, Welch has taken a cue from her predecessors, pushing her career in an unexpected direction. Her most recent album, Soul Journey (released in June 2003), features several guest musicians, including dobro player Greg Leisz, bassist Jim Boquist, and fiddler Ketcham Secor. Many of the 10 songs on Soul Journey sound fuzzy, laconic, and, lyrically, barely realized, while the most complete tracks -- especially the opener, "Look at Miss Ohio," and the closing tune, "Wrecking Ball" -- are full-on rockers.
"After Revelator, I had this reputation as a really heavy writer," Welch says. "[My fans] thought everything was gonna be that dense. Soul Journey was totally a move away from that, which was hard on people's expectations. But I didn't really have an agenda or much of a plan."
Once she'd finished writing the material, Welch says that it was a conscious decision to assemble a full band for recording. "We call the drums on there 'caveman drums.' They're the most skeletal drums and bass stuff you could have, like baby's first rhythm track," she says with a laugh. "I would press the record button with almost no instruction, because I trusted these musicians' instincts. They made these songs come to life in the studio."
With her nasal vocal delivery and fuzzed-out guitar chords, Welch's latest work is most reminiscent of '70s-era Neil Young, circa After the Gold Rush or Tonight's the Night. Her five-minute opus, "Wrecking Ball," echoes, without entirely emulating, Young's song of the same title. Welch sings, "Started down a road of sin/Playin' bass under a pseudonym/The days were rough, and it's all quite dim/But my mind cuts through it all like a wrecking ball." Young's version might tell the same story from a different point of view: "I see your smoky eyes/Right across the bar/I've seen that look before/Shining from star to star/Though I can't take that chance/If you got time for one dance/Meet me at the wrecking ball."
"It's coincidental, though I do know that song," Welch says. However, she wholeheartedly admits that much of Soul Journey was inspired by Young's On the Beach. "I had a hardcore week with that record while I was writing songs," she says.
"Actually, I was reading Shakey [Jimmy McDonough's biography of Young], and I realized that when I was a kid, Neil was my neighbor in Malibu. I saw this picture of him in front of an old wooden boat, and I thought and thought about it, until I remembered that it was down the street from where I grew up," Welch explains. "I realized all those crazy hippies wearing brown were Neil and his friends. That inspired me to put on On the Beach, and then I wrote Soul Journey."
Yet fans shouldn't expect a rock-and-roll show on the road. "The band is just me and Dave," Welch says. "I only know how to play live in a band of two. We're probably crazy, because the last time duet music was really commercial was in 1936! But we really like playing as a duo."
"People often ask me why we do it this way," Welch says, her voice soft and meditative. "I like it because the music is so skeletal and undeclared. You -- the listener -- have to fill in the blanks. You know, when we add drums and electric guitar, it's rock-and-roll. If we add fiddle and banjo, the same thing is called bluegrass. I don't want to make that decision for someone," Welch adds defiantly. "We live in this strange world where we're straddling all of these different things. We'll go play a punk rock club one night, and the next day we'll be at a bluegrass festival."
"I love that we can play Bonaroo, the Grand Ole Opry, and the Fillmore," Welch says. "But the only way I know how to do it is as a duo."