Eleanor Limprecht on listening to Gillian Welch
I grew up mocking my father’s penchant for country and bluegrass music. Why would anyone choose to listen to twangy voices singing of honkytonk angels and men done and gone? What was with the screeching fiddles, noodling guitars and high lonesome mandolins? I preferred the smooth pop melodies of Paula Abdul or the self-indulgent rage of the Beastie Boys.
Still, I listened closely on car rides, if purely for the purpose of making fun. Dolly Parton was a favourite, though I never would have admitted it then. I knew every word of her song ‘Coat of Many Colours’. I sang along to this tune about a young girl who didn’t have a coat when it was ‘way down in the fall’. Her mother was given a box of rags: ‘Momma sewed the rags together/ Sewin’ every piece with love/ She made my coat of many colours/ That I was so proud of.’
The girl wears the coat to school and naturally gets teased for having a coat made of rags. And then, she tells her classmates that, ‘One is only poor, only if they choose to be.’ I’d never heard a story so convincingly told within a song.
Eventually I moved away from my parents and went to university in a valley of the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia, a place where bluegrass music is as customary as dipping tobacco. I lived there for several years before noticing this, too distracted by my new-found hedonistic freedom. But then it would have been a Friday night, and for some reason I was with a group of friends going to the Floyd County General Store. Every Friday was jamboree night, and people would gather and musicians would form little groups and play together: fiddles, banjos, guitars, mandolins. You’d think it would sound dissonant, all those people playing, and it might have for a moment or two, but then a melody would emerge. The song would become familiar. Someone might sing and there was a rawness I hadn’t appreciated when I was younger; the sorrowful truths of the traditional lyrics started to make sense to me, and I was beginning to identify with the tales of loss and regret. The music hadn’t changed, but I had.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were making albums at this time, but I had yet to come across them. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I heard their second album, Time (The Revelator). The New Yorker describes their music as ‘at once innovative and obliquely reminiscent of past rural forms’. They’re not your typical bluegrass–country music singers. Welch grew up in California, an adopted child, and Rawlings was from Rhode Island. They met at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. An old sound appealed to them – the brother-team harmonies of the period between WWI and WWII – the pared-back sound of two guitars and two voices singing traditional songs.
Their music consists of stories, sung in a way that makes them hard to forget. Welch and Rawlings write about ordinary lives, but these are no ordinary lyrics. ‘Miner’s Refrain’ is a song told from the perspective of a coal miner, which begins ‘In the black dust towns of east Tennessee/ All the work’s about the same/ And you may not go to the job in the ground/ But you learn the miner’s refrain.’
And then, this unforgettable stanza of lyrical language: ‘When you search the rain for the silver cloud/ And you wait on days of gold/ When you pitch to the bottom/ And the dirt comes down/ You cry so cold, so cold.’ I had never heard a more piercing lament.
This is music that takes you to a moment in time, so reliant on the atmosphere it creates, the dark story it tells. In an interview with American Songwriter in 2012, Welch said: ‘A song being dark doesn’t always mean it will be depressing. There’s a time and a place for really dark songs, and I’m fine being the person to write those songs.’ I grinned when I read that. My first novel, What Was Left, is about a mother who abandons her baby. I’ve had many people ask me if I’ve chosen a more cheerful subject for my next book.
Welch and Rawlings’ latest album, The Harrow and the Harvest, came out in 2011 after an eight-year gap. It is one of those albums you can put on repeat for a month and still hear something extraordinary. I used two lines from the song ‘Tennessee’ as an epigraph to What Was Left: ‘Of all the little ways I found to hurt myself/ Well you might be my favorite one of all.’ It is a song about a girl who has fallen for the wrong kind of guy, only she’s just as guilty of transgression, it seems, as he is: ‘Even so I try to be a good girl/ It’s only what I want that makes me weak/ I had no desire to be a child of sin/ Until you went and pressed your whiskers to my cheek.’
Combined with their close harmonies and guitar, these lyrics create something words alone are incapable of. Nostalgia for something you have yet to feel, and a memory of something you might have felt once, long ago. A shiver up your spine; a dog howling in the far-off trees. The smell of leaf rot and wood smoke, my father’s pine tar soap, my great-grandfather’s pipe. My son, who is four, pipes up from the backseat: ‘I don’t like this poo bum music.’
Just you wait, son. You’ll see.