Gillian Welch’s songs are generally languid, slow and timeless. This also describes her career in which she has released six albums in 24 years. “Soul Journey” was her fourth album, released in 2003 and since then she has released just two albums although her musical partner, David Rawlings has also released three albums.
Her first three albums were stripped back and her intention for this album was to make a happy album. In an interview with Kyle Meredith in 2018, she looked back on the album and said “It strikes me as a brave record. It’s probably our most punk record. It’s got a real naïve brashness to it. We weren’t concerned with what people expected of us or what would sell the best or whether it would play on the radio. I look around now and musicians think so much about marketing now. That’s what I find charming about “Soul Journey”. We didn’t give a shit about marketing.”
The album starts with “Look At Miss Ohio” which describes an ex beauty queen who is debating her future. It contains the brilliant line “I want to do right, but not right now”. The song starts with an acoustic guitar, a lap steel and Gillian Welch’s weary, haunting, beautiful voice but after the first couple of verses, drums kick in for the first time on any of her songs. In the same interview mentioned above, she talks about how she often writes in a small room which is not sound proof. When she and David Rawlings were discussing what songs to include, she had forgotten about “Look At Miss Ohio” and he suggested that they record a song he had heard through the thin walls with a funny little rhyme. “Oh me-on-my-oh. Look at Miss Ohio”. The song was released as a single and has been streamed nearly 20 million times from Spotify. The video below highlights all the appealing attributes of a Gillian Welch song – simple but evocative lyrics, great harmony singing and astounding guitar playing.
“Make Me A Pallet On The Floor” is a song that originates from New Orleans in the late 19th Century. She first heard the song performed by Doc Watson but she didn’t like the lyrics about sleeping on the floor and making sure her man wouldn’t know about it so she added lyrics of her own to make it relevant to her own life of crashing on friends’ floors.
“I Had A Real Good Mother And Father” was written by George Washington Phillips in 1929 and, once again, Gillian Welch added some lyrics of her won. Could any song be more delicate or unhurried?
Gillian Welch was adopted at an early age. “No One Knows My Name” describes how her mother was 17 when she gave birth, her father was “just passing through“, and how nobody in the world knows her name. She had a good (adopted) mother and father but every now and again she sees a stranger who looks a little like her and that causes her to have a “lonesome thought“. The tone of this song is more jolly and upbeat than many others, despite the lyrics.
When she plays “One Little Song” in Arkansas in 2018, a member of the audience shouts out “can you dance?” Everybody else in the audience probably wondered whether that person had ever heard Gillian Welch play before. Anyway, she replies that she can dance but “probably not to this song” which is another hauntingly beautiful slow song. The lyrics ask whether there is another song left to sing – a song that nobody else has thought of. She also asks whether or not there is a drop of rain that hasn’t fallen yet, or maybe a taste of cherry pie that’s left or a view of an endless sky to be had. Tellingly, she asks if there is a chance to start again which gives an indication that the song is one of regret, of missed chances and mistakes made. Can she ever find happiness again?
My favourite track on the album is “Wrecking Ball”, not the Emmylou Harris song. It’s a full band song with the ubiquitous Greg Leisz on dobro and Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show on really great fiddle. The song is autobiographical and describes how she was a “rollin’ stone” when she left home; she was “headed for a fall” because she was naïve and unprepared for the wrecking ball that could hit her at any moment. She started “on a road to sin” and played bass “under a pseudonym” (a goth band at The University of California). She spent time on the “pogonip” in Santa Cruz, a hangout for drug addicts and when there she met a “lovesick daughter” which could be a euphemism for LSD. She had love affairs, she became a Deadhead (a fan of the Grateful Dead) and the final act of destruction was the 1989 earthquake in the Pacific Garden Mall in Santa Cruz. The musicianship on this track is wonderfully sympathetic, the melody is sympathetically wonderful and the overall impact is wonderfully wonderful.
The pace of Gillian Welch’s career is admirable. Her new album, “All The Good Times“, was released on streaming services in September but the CD doesn’t arrive until next week.