Gillian Welch

  • Americana, bluegrass, and folk singer, songwriter and guitarist born in 1967 in New York City.
  • While she was born in NYC and grew up in Los Angeles, her favorite music as a child was folk music, especially Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the Carter family. In grade school, she sang folk music in school concerts, and in college she performed with a goth band and a psychedelic surf group. After a roommate played a bluegrass album, she realized that bluegrass was what she loved.
  • After graduating from college, she attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, majoring in songwriting. While there, she auditioned for a country band, and met David Rawlings, who soon became her partner in music. After graduation in 1992, she moved to Nashville, since all of the music she loved was made there, and Rawlings soon followed her. They performed at open mics as a duo, but they chose to identify themselves simply as Gillian Welch. Record producer T-Bone Burnett discovered them performing at a bluegrass bar, and became interested in working with them. He helped her sign a recording contract, and he agreed to produce her debut album.
  • Welch’s debut album, Revival, was released in 1996. Half of the album was stripped down to the bare bones of Welch’s vocals with Rawlings’ acoustic guitar, and the other half included contributions by session musicians. The songs reflected the sound of Appalachian music from 75 years earlier, with rustic and dark themes – and the critics loved her, earning her a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album (she was up against Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad). Her second album, Hell Among the Yearlings, was released in 1998. Tough themes continued, including songs about a woman who kills a rapist and the effect of morphine before dying.
  • These recordings and her concert performances set Welch up for her breakthrough. In 2000, the acclaimed Cohen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? was released. The film featured a soundtrack that was produced by Burnett. It contained bluegrass, country, gospel and folk music that fit into the time frame of the movie – late 1930s – though most of the songs were modern recordings. Welch was an associate producer, and she sang on 2 songs to the soundtrack, including a duet with Alison Krauss, I’ll Fly Away, which was nominated for a Grammy. The album won the Grammy award for Album of the Year, earning Welch a statue.
  • Welch released 2 studio albums in the 00s – Time (The Revelator) in 2001 and Soul Journey in 2003. The former had a similar style to her earlier work – sparse songs about American history, rock & roll and country music. It earned her another Grammy nomination in the Folk Album category (losing to Bob Dylan – hard to win again the titans). The latter album reflected a style change – it contained more instrumentation and happier themes. These albums charted on the Billboard 200 album chart, and were top 10 albums on the Indie Albums chart.
  • In 2009, Dave Rawlings started a side project called The Dave Rawlings Machine. Welch contributed significantly to the project with vocals and songwriting. Albums were released in 2009 and 2015. Rawlings also released an album attributed solely to himself in 2017, and as usual, Welch was prevalent in her contributions to the record.
  • Welch’s most recent studio album was released in 2011. Titled The Harrow & The Harvest, it peaked at #20 on the Billboard 200 and topped the Folk Album chart. Welch was honored with yet another Grammy nomination (this time, losing to The Civil Wars), and several critics ranked it in their “best of” lists for the year.
  • In 2018, Welch and Rawlings wrote 2 songs for the Coen Brothers’ film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. One of the songs, When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Welch and Rawlings performed it at the Oscars ceremony in 2019 (the winner was Lady Gaga – again, hard to beat a titan).
  • Many artists have recorded songs written by Welch – the list includes Jimmy Buffett, Trisha Yearwood, Joan Baez, Miranda Lambert and ZZ Top. In 2015, she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting (along with Rawlings) by the Americana Music Association. Americana performers like Welch don’t get much prime time exposure – but if you need to escape the glitz of today’s pop, bro-country, hip hop, techno, etc music, and you want to give folk/Americana music a try, I’d suggest you dial up Gillian Welch on your streaming service. Here is Welch, with Rawlings, performing I’ll Fly Away.

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