With the bracing resurgence of vinyl records this decade, more indie artists are delving into music’s retro golden age with a DIY ethos. The digital virus hasn’t quite infected everyone.
Befitting her austere, Folk aesthetic and hardcore passion for analog, Gillian Welch is not only releasing new records these days — she is also actually pressing the vinyl grooves herself.
Welch and her partner David Rawlings released their classic debut, Revival, produced by T Bone Burnett, back in 1996. Their stripped-down, dual acoustic sound and keening voices felt like outsider music when contrasted with the mid-’90s Grunge ruling the airwaves then. Yet only four years later, Welch was taking home a Grammy award for her contributions as songwriter and executive producer for the eight-times-platinum-selling soundtrack of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, the influential Bluegrass/Roots blueprint that spiked the popularity of AltCountry and its myriad Americana variations.
Their last two releases, Soul Journey and Boots No. 1 The Official Revival Bootleg, both archival classics, were released on Welch’s and Rawlings’ own Acony Records. Boots No. 1 was inspired by Bob Dylan’s ongoing Bootleg Series, proof that Faulkner’s adage — “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” — is accurate yet again.
“They all bring about a new chapter, don’t they?” Welch says of her canon. “Hell Among the Yearlings (1998) brought along the banjo, Revelator (2001) was a whole lot of things.”
She finds her 2003 album Soul Journey to be the most revelatory, though.
“When we were remastering it for vinyl and cutting that last groove, I was really struck by its bravery,” she says of her fourth studio LP. “This might sound funny, but to me, I heard its punkness, its sort of outsiderness and its bravery. It’s amazing we weren’t concerned about making a more commercial record after the success of Revelator. It sounds, if you don’t mind my saying, like we just don’t give a damn.”
Acoustic doesn’t necessarily mean soft and Folk doesn’t have to mean tame. Welch’s and Rawlings’ inspirations dig oak deep; their raw, aching songs of gospel grace, morphine addiction, barroom girls and nowhere men, knowing Jesus by the mark of the nails and road trips across Appalachia and America echo masters like The Louvin Brothers and Stanley Brothers, the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, Bob Dylan and The Band — iconic, pioneer spirits, all.
The first song Welch and Rawlings ever played together, while attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music, was The Band’s mournful “Long Black Veil” from Music from Big Pink. (In his later years, The Band’s Levon Helm played occasionally with Welch and Rawlings.)
“We knew enough Bluegrass to realize we had a natural blend,” Welch says of her partnership with Rawlings. “There’s something about it — we always refer to that as the buzz, like the vocals buzz. We had that buzz — I like to think it’s gotten better over the years.”
An understated eloquence haunts Welch’s words and music. Her spare poetry spikes the fertile loam for the thorny, counterpoint leads that bloom from Rawlings’ 1935 Epiphone archtop guitar. Rawlings’ fluid virtuosity and sweet dissonance imbue every song with ramshackle intensity.
Monochrome black-and-white concert videos. Polka-dot gingham dresses and preacher suits. Steinbeckian characters. Carter Family passions. Gypsy vagabonds of the Rolling Thunder mid-’70s tour variety. These conjure up just a few enigmatic guises of Rawlings’ and Welch’s hallowed 25-year career. Their dark, pure vein of Americana music evokes dusky moonlight, blue highway dreams, moonshine and murder, the languid grace of the saved, and the reckless sins of the damned.
A fierce integrity spills from Welch’s slow, measured drawl, as she asserts what she wants in recording.
“They just haven’t surpassed analog, even with as many improvements as there are in the digital realm,” she says. “If you’re an acoustic musician, it’s the best way to record. For air especially, which is a vital component of what we do. That’s what always just makes me crazy, when I hear a great vinyl copy of say, Astral Weeks or Kind of Blue — it’s the air. You can hear the air moving around the upright bass, you can hear it between Van Morrison’s face and the microphone.”
Welch says she and Rawlings first noticed that void on digital releases when they started listening to vinyl more heavily in the mid-2000s.
“It just hit us in the face, that this detail — this vital component of records — had been erased off the digital version,” Welch says. “And not only is it a bummer and doesn’t sound as good, but as a musician, it makes me angry how they’ve broken the chain of being able to hear how the guys were doing it. Our first two records first came out new on cassette, so we used to tell people who were just nutty about analog, like, go find the cassette. Because the cassette of Hell Among the Yearlings is still the best way to listen to it — till the day we cut the vinyl.”
Sepia-toned rue, hard fate and whiskey regret flood many Welch/Rawlings songs, and their albums — from the folk-art covers to the concepts — spin their integrity in gold and mercury grooves. The duo takes gracious turns in the spotlight as well. In between Welch releases, she plays guitar for the Dave Rawlings Machine band in the studio and onstage. They recently finished a tour for his Poor David’s Almanack album.
But eventually, Welch felt compelled to get directly involved with the vinyl process, so she started shellacking grooves, so to speak, in Woodland Studio, their home recording base in East Nashville.
“I’m (a) low man on the totem pole, but I’m in the room and helping, making switches,” Welch says. “Typically, there are four of us in there to cut a side the way we do it with the original master tapes, because we don’t make an EQ duplicate master. We are EQ-ing on the fly, which most vinyl mastering textbooks will tell you is impossible, but we wanted to see if we could do it so as to not lose the generation of tape and so we do it.”
"I almost can’t tell you what kind of a profound effect it’s had on David and myself to finally be able to put our music on the record shelf with the records that changed our lives,” she adds about the vinyl process. “I feel like we finally arrived and we get to at least be on the playground.”
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform 8 p.m. Monday (Oct. 8) at Taft Theatre. Tickets/more info: tafttheatre.org.