Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Refracting the Tradition with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings

I DON'T think I've been this starstruck since I interviewed Martin Scorsese a few years back. Meeting Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings -- two of most distinctive and harmonically complex figures in the new acoustic movement -- was one of the thrills of the summer.

My story on the duo -- and recent years and a solo album have shown how important Rawlings contribution is -- runs today in the LA Times. (It precedes their show Thursday at the Henry Fonda Music Box.)

Part of what intrigues me about the two is the way they take the tradition of pre-rock Appalachian brother bands -- the Louvin Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers -- and cross them with a more modern harmonic language. It's all over the new record, The Harrow and the Harvest.

Rawlings, who is emerging one of the most individual guitarists of his generation, is steeped in old-time mountain music but is also informed by Gang of Four’s spiky post-punk, Johnny Marr's weeping riffs and Richard Thompson’s otherworldly chime. (Check out his recent LP, A Friend of a Friend, as Dave Rawlings Machine. The song "Ruby" and the cover of Neil Young's Cortez the Killer are good places to start.) His 1935 Epiphone archtop, often played with the capo us as high as the 9th or 10th fret, has lately become one of my favorite things to hear.

“If I could compare it sonically to ‘Time (The Revelator),’ ” he said abour Harrow, which he produced, “I’d say this record comes forward out of the speakers, and creates the atmosphere more in the space you’re in,” as opposed to what he calls the shy and “retiring” quality of the earlier album. “This record is more intimately recorded – we’re sitting around and gently playing the songs. The way we play when we’re not recording.”

Welch, who grew up on LA's Westside in the Reagan years and not in 1930s Appalachia, is sensitive about the issue of her authenticity.

In one key way, in fact, she had a pre-modern upbringing: While she grew up singing classic folk and country music, she never heard recordings of them: She knew the songs only through an oral tradition. Years later, she attended UC Santa Cruz, and was at first a bit lost, personally and musically – she sang briefly in front of a psychedelic surf band – but was exposed to old recordings by a bluegrass deejay housemate. 

“And I have this complete, strange epiphany,” she recalls. “I’m hearing these sounds I’ve never heard before, but they’re the songs I’ve known since I was as kid.” The experience turned her head around. “And then presto, we’re done. And then I’m just like every other person who just needed a record player, these records and a door that locked.”

No comments: