Gillian Welch: Wikis


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Gillian Welch
A slender, middle-aged woman with long brown hair plays guitar and sings into a microphone. She wears a cowboy hat and a red dress.
Gillian Welch performing at MerleFest in 2007
Background information
Born October 2, 1967 (1967-10-02) (age 42)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Origin Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
Genres Bluegrass, Americana, rock
Instruments singing, guitar, banjo, drums
Associated acts Dave Rawlings Machine
Notable instruments
1956 Gibson J-50

Gillian Welch (born October 2, 1967 in New York City) is an American singer-songwriter. She performs with her musical partner, guitarist David Rawlings. Their sparse and dark musical style combines elements of Appalachian music, bluegrass, and Americana described by The New Yorker as "at once innovative and obliquely reminiscent of past rural forms".[1]

Welch and Rawlings have released four critically acclaimed albums. Their 1996 debut, Revival and the 2001 release Time (The Revelator) received nominations for the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Their most recent album is the 2003 release Soul Journey, which introduces electric guitar, drums and a more upbeat sound to their body of work.

Welch was an associate producer and performed on two songs for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, a bestselling platinum album that won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002. Throughout her career, Welch has collaborated and recorded with several distinguished musicians, including Alison Krauss, Ryan Adams, Jay Farrar, Emmylou Harris, and Mark Knopfler. In addition, Welch and Rawlings perform at many notable music festivals.


Early life

Gillian[a 1] Howard Welch was born on October 2, 1967 in New York City, and was fostered to Ken and Mitzie Welch in a pre-arranged adoption.[1] Her biological mother gave birth while a freshman at Columbia University, and her father was a musician visiting New York City.[1] Welch has speculated that her biological father could have been one of her favorite musicians, and she later discovered from her adoptive parents that he was a drummer.[1][2][3] Alec Wilkinson of The New Yorker stated that "from an address they had been given, it appeared that her mother ... may have grown up in the mountains of North Carolina".[1] When Welch was three, her adopted parents moved to Los Angeles to write music for The Carol Burnett Show. They were comedy and music entertainers, and once appeared on The Tonight Show.[1]

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Welch was introduced to the music of American folk singers Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Carter Family at a young age. As a student at the progressive Westland Elementary School in Los Angeles, she sang folk songs with her peers.[1][4] Welch later attended Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California for high school, where she was featured on a local television program as a student who "excelled at everything she did".[1]

While a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Welch played bass in a goth band, and drums in a psychedelic surf band; neither band lasted for long.[1] While in college, she heard a roommate playing an album by the bluegrass band The Stanley Brothers, and had an epiphany:

The first song came on and I just stood up and I kind of walked into the other room as if I was in a tractor beam and stood there in front of the stereo. It was just as powerful as the electric stuff, and it was songs I'd grown up singing. All of a sudden I'd found my music.[5]

After graduating from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in photography, Welch attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she majored in songwriting.[6] During her two years studying at Berklee, Welch gained confidence as a performer, because in her own words, "You had to. In every class, you had to do things in front of about twenty people."[1][6] Welch met her music partner David Rawlings at a successful audition for Berklee's only country band.[7][8]


A man with his head down playing a guitar with a smiling Welch also playing guitar on stage. Both play in front of microphones.
Rawlings and Welch performing in Seattle in 2009

Upon finishing college in 1992, Welch moved to Nashville, Tennessee.[9] She recalled, "I looked at my record collection and saw that all the music I loved had been made in Nashville—Bill Monroe, Dylan, the Stanley Brothers, Neil Young—so I moved there. Not ever thinking I was thirty years too late."[1] Rawlings soon followed. In Nashville, the two first realized that their voices harmonized well after singing "Long Black Veil", and they started to perform as a duet.[1] They never considered using a working name, so the duo were simply billed as "Gillian Welch".[1] A year after moving to Nashville, Welch found a manager, Denise Stiff, who was already managing Alison Krauss. Both Welch and Stiff ignored frequent advice that Welch should stop playing with Rawlings and join a band.[1][4] They eventually signed a recording contract with Almo Sounds.[4] Following a performance opening for Peter Rowan at the Station Inn, producer T-Bone Burnett expressed interest in recording an album with Welch and Rawlings. Welch liked that Burnett was not planning to disturb their preference for minimal instrumentation, and agreed to take him on as a producer.[10]



For the recording sessions of Welch's debut, Revival, Burnett wanted to recapture the bare sound of Welch's live performance.[10] Welch recalled, "That first week was really intense. It was just T-Bone, the engineer, and Dave and myself. We got so inside our little world. There was very little distance between our singing and playing. The sound was very immediate. It was so light and small."[10] Later, they recorded several more songs and played with an expanded group of musicians; guitarist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee James Burton, bassist Roy Huskey, Jr., and veteran session drummers Jim Keltner and Buddy Harman.

The album was released in April 1996 to mostly positive reviews. Mark Deming of Allmusic called it a "superb debut" and wrote, "Welch's debts to artists of the past are obvious and clearly acknowledged, but there's a maturity, intelligence, and keen eye for detail in her songs you wouldn't expect from someone simply trying to ape the Carter Family."[11] Bill Friskics-Warren of No Depression praised the album as "breathtakingly austere evocations of rural culture".[10] Mark Guarino of the Chicago Daily Herald observed that Revival was "cheered and scrutinized as a staunch revivalist of Depression-era music only because her originals sounded so much like that era because of the biblical imagery in the lyrics, Burnett's threadbare production and the plainly sung bleakness in her vocals".[12] Revival is not without criticism—Ann Powers of Rolling Stone gave it a more lukewarm review, criticizing Welch for not singing of her own experiences, and "manufacturing emotion".[13] Robert Christgau echoed this, stating that Welch "just doesn't have the voice, eye, or way with words to bring her simulation off".[14] Revival was nominated for the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, but lost to Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad.[15]

Hell Among The Yearlings

1998's Hell Among the Yearlings continues Welch and Rawlings' rustic and dark themes; the songs' subject matter varies from a female character killing a rapist, a mining accident, a murder ballad, and an ode to morphine before death.[16] Like Revival, Hell Among The Yearlings features T-Bone Burnett's sparse production that focuses on Rawlings and Welch's voices and guitars.[16][17]

Welch singing and playing guitar on stage, wearing a black dress.
Gillian Welch performing at the 2007 New Orleans Jazz Fest

The album has received favorable reviews—Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Observer observed that Welch "inhabits a role so completely, the fiction separating character and audience disappears".[18] Thom Owens of Allmusic stated that the album "lacks some of the focus" of Revival, but is "a thoroughly satisfying second album" and proof that her debut was not a fluke.[19] No Depression's Farnum Brown commended the live and "immediate feel" of the album, Welch's clawhammer banjo (which she learned to play before recording the album),[20] and Rawlings' harmonies.[15] Similar to Revival, Welch was praised for reflecting influences such as The Stanley Brothers, but still managing to create an original sound.[17] On the contrary, Chris Herrington from Minneapolis's City Pages criticized the songs' lack of authenticity. He wrote "Welch doesn't write folk songs; she writes folk songs about writing folk songs."[21]

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

A man and two women crowded around a microphone and singing. The man is on the left and wearing a dark blue suit and a white cowboy hat. Welch, in the middle, is wearing a black dress, and the woman on the right is wearing a green dress.
David Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss performing at the 2008 Austin City Limits Music Festival

Welch sang on two songs and served as an associate producer for the Burnett-produced soundtrack to the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?.[22] She shares vocals with Alison Krauss on a rendition of the gospel song "I'll Fly Away". Dave McKenna of The Washington Post praised their version, saying that that the singers "soar together".[23] Burnett and Welch wrote additional lyrics on the song "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby", sung by Welch, Emmylou Harris, and Krauss. The song is an expansion of a tune from Mississippi discovered by Alan Lomax, and was nominated for the 2002 Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.[24] The album became a bestselling platinum album, and won the 2002 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The surprise success of the soundtrack led to a considerable career boost for Welch; she called the album a "mass media bomb", and appreciated its contribution to the popularity of folk music.[25][26] Welch also made a cameo appearance in the film.[27]

Time (The Revelator)

After Universal Music Group purchased Almo Sounds, Welch began her own independent label, Acony Records (named after the Acony Bell flower, subject of the song "Acony Bell" on Revival).[4][12] The first release on Welch's new label was her 2001 album Time (The Revelator).[12] All but one song on the album was recorded in RCA Studio B, a historic recording studio in Nashville.[28] "I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll" was recorded live at the Ryman Auditorium as part of the sessions for the concert film Down from the Mountain.

A slender, bearded, middle-aged man in a blue shirt and jeans and Welch in a black dress playing guitar on stage. Welch is singing.
David Rawlings and Gillian Welch performing at the 2009 Newport Folk Festival

Welch has said the album is about American history, rock 'n' roll, and country music.[29] There are songs about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Titanic Disaster, John Henry, and Elvis Presley.[28] The album was produced by Rawlings.[30] Time continues Welch and Rawlings' style of mellow and sparse arrangements. Welch explained, "As opposed to being little tiny folk songs or traditional songs, they're really tiny rock songs. They're just performed in this acoustic setting. In our heads we went electric without changing instruments."[31]

Time (The Revelator) has received extensive praise from critics. The lyrics evolved from the mountain ballads present on previous albums, and this is a focus of critics in their reviews.[22][31][32] Michael Shannon Friedman of The Charleston Gazette stated, "Welch's soul-piercing, backwoods quaver has always been a treasure, but on this record her songwriting is absolutely stunning."[32] The last track on the album, "I Dream a Highway", is a fifteen minute song compared to classic songs by Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and was described by Zac Johnson of Allmusic as "sweetly dozing in the current like Huck and Jim's Mississippi River afternoons".[31][32] No Depression's Grant Alden wrote, "Welch and Rawlings have gathered together fragments from across the rich history of American music and reset them as small, subtle jewels adorning their own keenly observed, carefully constructed language."[22] Time finished thirteenth in the 2001 Village Voice Pazz & Jop music critic poll.[33] It appears in best of decade lists by Rolling Stone, Paste, Uncut, The Irish Times, and the Ottawa Citizen.[30][34][35][36][37]

The album was nominated for the 2002 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, which was won by Bob Dylan's Love and Theft.[38] Time peaked at #7 on the Billboard Indepedent Album chart.[39]

In 2002, The Revelator Collection DVD was released. It features live performances and music videos of songs from Time, and some covers. The concert footage was filmed in 2001, and the music videos consist of Welch and Rawlings performing three songs at RCA Studio B. No Depression's Barry Mazor praised the DVD as an accompaniment for Time, and wrote that it is "one last exclamation point on that memorable and important project".[40]

Soul Journey

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2003's Soul Journey reflects Welch and Rawlings exploring new ground. Welch said, "I wanted to make it a happier record. Out of our four records, I thought this might be the one where you're driving down the road listening to it on a sunny summer day."[41] Rawlings again produced the record, and instruments such as a dobro, violin, electric bass and drums were introduced. Welch said, "Everything's not supposed to sound the same, you want it to reflect change and growth."[7]

A skinny man in a white shirt and burnt red pants on stage stares into the camera while Welch next to him in a white dress focuses on playing her guitar. The man looks to be in his 20s.
Justin Townes Earle & Gillian Welch performing in 2009

Soul Journey features three songs that mark the first time Welch and Rawlings recorded their own versions of traditional folk songs.[42] On the original compositions, Welch's lyrics are more autobiographical than previous albums.[12]

The album has received mixed reviews. Allmusic's Zac Johnson wrote that it is "too casual and off-the-cuff", but called it a "wonderful, dusty summertime front-porch album, full of whiskey drawls and sly smiles, floorboard stomps and screen-door creeks".[43] Jon Caramanica of Rolling Stone criticized the slower songs as "stagnant", but complimented the upbeat songs.[44] Soul Journey also garnered significant acclaim. John Harris of Mojo magazine described the album as "pretty much perfect", and Uncut's Barney Hoskyns favorably compared it to Bob Dylan and The Band's The Basement Tapes.[45][46] Will Hermes of Entertainment Weekly wrote that Welch has "never sounded deeper, realer, or sexier".[47]

Soul Journey peaked at #107 on the Billboard charts, and #3 for Independent Albums.[48]

Dave Rawlings Machine

Welch and Rawlings continued their partnership in the band Dave Rawlings Machine. The 2009 debut album A Friend of a Friend was described by Andy Gill of The Independent as a "akin to one of Welch's albums, but with the balance of their harmonies swapped to favour Rawlings' voice".[49] Welch co-wrote five of the songs with Rawlings, played guitar, and provided harmony vocals.[50][51] Alex Ramon of PopMatters wrote that it is "ostensibly Rawlings’s first solo album", but also notes the similarities to Welch albums.[51] The album was praised by Stephen Deusner of Paste Magazine for incorporating "a wide swath of traditional American music", which is echoed in a review in Rolling Stone by Will Hermes, and in Ramon's PopMatters piece.[51][52][53]

Future release

In a 2007 feature in The Guardian, critic John Harris expressed frustration that there had not been a Gillian Welch release in four years.[54] Creation Records founder Alan McGee showed optimism in a 2009 blog entry about Welch and Rawlings testing out some new songs while opening some concerts for Rilo Kiley, and wrote "the long gestation period signals nothing less than a perfect album".[55] Rawlings said in a November 2009 interview that recording for the next Gillian Welch album has started, but did not have a clear estimate on a release date.[56]

Musical style

Welch and Rawlings incorporate elements of early twentieth century music such as old time, classic country, gospel and traditional bluegrass, combined with modern elements of rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll, jazz, and punk rock.[1] Alec Wilkinson of The New Yorker wrote that their musical style is "not easily classified—it is at once innovative and obliquely reminiscent of past rural forms".[1]

A middle-aged man wearing a dark suit playing guitar while Welch in a black striped dress plays a banjo and sings on stage.
Gillian Welch playing banjo in a performance with David Rawlings

The instrumentation on their songs is usually a simple arrangement, with Welch and Rawlings accompanying their vocals with acoustic guitars, banjos, or a mandolin.[1] Welch plays rhythm guitar with a 1956 Gibson J-50 (or banjo), while Rawlings plays lead on a 1935 Epiphone Olympic Guitar.[57] The New Yorker's Wilkinson described Rawlings as a "strikingly inventive guitarist" who plays solos that are "daring melodic leaps".[1] A review in No Depression by Andy Moore observed that "he doesn't play his big, coffee-colored, hollow body Gibson so much as he squeezes, strokes, chokes and does just about everything but blow into it".[58] Jamie Cowperthwait of Rolling Stone wrote that Rawlings' guitar playing "makes the music swell and vibrate at all the right moments".[59]

Welch described her singing with Rawlings as different than traditional bluegrass duets that feature a lead singer and a tenor. Instead, she compared Rawlings' background vocals to a baritone.[1]


Many songs performed by Welch and Rawlings contain dark themes about social outcasts struggling against elements such as poverty, drug addiction, death, a disconnection from their family, and an unresponsive God.[1] Despite Welch being the lead singer, several of these characters are male.[1] Welch has commented, "To be commercial, everybody wants happy love songs. People would flat-out ask me, 'Don't you have any happy love songs?' Well, as a matter of fact I don't. I've got songs about orphans and morphine addicts."[9] To reflect these themes, Welch and Rawlings often employ a slow pace to their songs. Their tempo is compared to a "slow heartbeat", and Cowperthwait of Rolling Stone observed that their songs "can lull you into near-hypnosis and then make your jaw drop with one final revelation".[1][59]


Welch in a green tanktop sings into a microphone while playing guitar.
Gillian Welch performing at the 2009 Newport Folk Festival

Welch has received considerable critical praise. Geoffrey Himes of The Washington Post praised Welch as "one of the most interesting singer-songwriters of her generation".[60] In 2003, Tom Kielty of The Boston Globe observed that she was "quietly establishing one of the most impressive catalogs in contemporary roots music", and a 2007 piece in The Guardian by John Harris called Welch "one of the decade's greatest talents".[54][61] Critic Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "At every turn, she demonstrates a spark and commitment that should endear her to anyone from country and folk to pop and rock fans who appreciate imagination and heart."[62]

When Welch's first two albums came out, critics questioned the authenticity of her music, as she was raised in Southern California, but performed Appalachian themed songs.[8][17][63] For Revival, Welch was criticized for "manufacturing emotion", and a review of Hell Among the Yearlings by Chris Herrington of City Pages stated, "Welch is someone who discovered old-time music in college and decided that her own sheltered life could never be worth writing about", and that she is "completely devoid of individuality".[13][21] Other critics rejected the notion that her background affects the "authenticity" of her music. The Wall Street Journal's Taylor Holliday defended Welch:

Stingy critics give Ms. Welch a hard time because she's a California city girl, not an Appalachian coal miner's daughter. But as Lucinda or Emmylou might attest, love of the music is not a birthright, but an earned right. Listen to Ms. Welch yodel, in a tune about that no-good "gal" Morphine, and you know she's as mountain as they come.[17]

No Depression's Farnum Brown echoed this: "Despite the fact that Welch wasn't raised dirt poor in some East Tennessee hollow, her grasp of the emotional and spiritual reach of old-time country music is undeniable".[15]

Influences and collaborations

A bearded man who looks to be in his 60s wearing a dark red shirt and Welch, smiling, with her arm around him. Huge white tents are in the background.
Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and Gillian Welch at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Welch emphasizes music from a previous era as her major influence. She said that "by and large I listen to people who are dead. I'm really of the tried-and-true school. I let 50 years go by and see what's really relevant."[63] Some traditional country artists Welch has acknowledged are The Stanley Brothers, The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers, and The Blue Sky Boys.[1][64] She explained her relationship with traditional music by saying, "I've never tried to be traditional. It's been a springboard for me and I love it and revere it and would not be doing what I do without the music of the Monroe Brothers, the Stanley Brothers and the Carter Family. However, it was clear I was never going to be able to do exactly that; I'm a songwriter."[65]

Rock 'n' roll artists Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Neil Young, the Grateful Dead and The Velvet Underground have all been listed as influences on Welch.[1][8][66] She has said that alternative rock bands Throwing Muses, Pixies and Camper Van Beethoven are "great bands" that "don't directly inform my music, but they're in there".[63][66]

Welch has recorded songs with a variety of notable artists including Ryan Adams, Ani DiFranco, Emmylou Harris, Jay Farrar, Alison Krauss, Old Crow Medicine Show, Bright Eyes, Robyn Hitchcock, Steve Earle, Ralph Stanley, Solomon Burke and Mark Knopfler.[7][8][52][67][68] Welch and Rawlings' contributions on Hitchcock's album Spooked was described by Christopher Bahn of the The A.V. Club as "subtle but vital".[69] Mark Deming of Allmusic wrote that their work on Ryan Adams' album Heartbreaker "brought out the best in Adams".[70]

Artists who have recorded songs written by Welch include Jimmy Buffett, Trisha Yearwood, Joan Baez, Allison Moorer, Emmylou Harris, and Kathy Mattea.[1][7][71][72][73]


A group of musicicans, including Welch and four men, crowd around two microphones, passionately singing. There are three guitarists and one man playing a stand-up bass.
The Dave Rawlings Machine performing at Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas, 2009

Welch and Rawlings have played many notable music festivals, including The Newport Folk Festival, Coachella Festival, The Telluride Bluegrass Festival, The Cambridge Folk Festival, MerleFest, The Austin City Limits Festival, and Farm Aid.[8][65][74][75][76][77][78][79][80] They have toured North America extensively, and have played in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.[8][20][65][81] Concert reviews have praised the chemistry between Welch and Rawlings on stage.[7][81][82] Tizzy Asher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote "there was a startling unspoken intimacy between them. They anticipated each other's movements and shifted when necessary to fit each other."[82]

The Dave Rawlings Machine have toured North America, with the band composed of Rawlings, Welch and three members of Old Crow Medicine Show.[83] Welch and Rawlings also participate in group tours with notable musicians. In 2004, they were part of the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue, a three-week US tour with Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris.[84] In 2009, The Dave Rawlings Machine joined Old Crow Medicine Show, The Felice Brothers and Justin Townes Earle for The Big Surprise Tour, a US tour described as a "roots-music extravaganza".[85]


Welch and Rawlings started dating in college, and have been referred to as a couple.[1][9][82] They reside in Nashville.



  1. ^ Pronounced with a hard /ɡ/


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External links

Simple English

Gillian Howard Welch
Born October 2, 1967 (1967-10-02) (age 43)

New York City, New York, U.S.

Origin Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
Genres bluegrass, country, folk
Instruments singing, guitar, banjo, drums, harmonica
Notable instruments
Gibson J-50

Gillian Howard Welch (born October 2 1967 in New York City)[1] is a United States singer-songwriter whose musical style combines bluegrass, country, and folk into a style she calls "American Primitive".[2]


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