From 'Orphan Girl' to acclaim, Welch smiles, sings through 'Hard Times'

Gillian Welch
Special to The Forum

FARGO - After three "wintry" albums, folk singer Gillian Welch called 2003's "Soul Journey," "summery."

The songwriter had a different season in mind for last year's, "The Harrow & The Harvest."

"Autumnal," Welch said by phone last week. "It is the harvest of songs after a bit of a dry spell."

Welch will bring all her seasonal songs to town when she plays the Fargo Theatre Saturday night.

Welch, who has mined traditional Appalachian folk, bluegrass and gospel, has a steady hand for weaving hard-time tunes into beautiful harmonies with her music and life partner, David Rawlings.


"The Harrow & The Harvest" doesn't stray from her somber stylings, but she says the melancholy of fall isn't the same as the despair of winter,

"That realization that summer has passed or is passing," she says of the album's theme. "There's a quiet realization of loss that goes through this record. There is sort of a pervading sense of lost time and what effect that has on friends and relations and everything."

It's no surprise that the feeling of time slipping away came directly from the eight frustrating years of writing and wondering if they could produce anything they really liked again. During that span she estimates she and Rawlings wrote three albums worth of material before the 10 songs on "The Harrow & The Harvest."

"In the end, the record we did put out was a more mature record for it," Welch says. "And in a funny way, I think this record is our most wry, humorous record. I think we got our sense of humor back.

"A couple of years ago my sense of humor about the whole situation was basically gone. I was pissed off and really sad that we weren't able to write anything we liked. It was truly awful, and some people never come out of that. It was a truly harrowing stretch."

Eventually they worked through their funk by recording Rawling's 2009 disc, "Friend of a Friend" and by staying on the road and playing. She estimates they criss-crossed the country 10 to 12 times while writing.

Which makes her more excited to play the Fargo Theatre.

"We love playing cities we've never been to before," Welch says.


Part of the problem with writing was missing the balance between old-timey and modern, traditional and personal.

"When (the songs) manage to walk that wire, then they're satisfying to us," she says.

Like her parents, who wrote songs for the "Carol Burnett Show," Welch is happy to be in such a productive relationship. Even though it is her name on the bill, she says fans realize it's a duo and that Rawlings is an equal partner.

And an accomplished duo. Welch and Rawlings have been nominated for a Grammy and earned four nominations for this year's Americana Music Awards for "The Harrow & The Harvest."

Still, her biggest audience came on the "O' Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, where she sang traditional tunes "I'll Fly Away" with Alison Krauss and "Didn't Leave Nothing but the Baby" with Krauss and Emmylou Harris.

The 44-year-old Welch grew up in a musical house singing folk songs. But when she had heard the original recorded versions by the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers or Woody Guthrie, she heard something different.

"I loved the sound. They were so toothy and gritty, and I thought they were beautiful and ecstatic," she says. "I find old-time folk music and bluegrass music to be so ecstatic, which is all I care about. The same reason I love Jimi Hendrix is why I love Bill Monroe. I hear them both as ecstatic artists."

The singer-songwriter first came


to public attention when Emmylou Harris released Welch's "Orphan Girl" in 1995. A year later, Welch released her own version on her debut, "Revival."

The song was originally written with Ralph Stanley in mind, so she could have something he'd like when she played his festival. Similarly, "Barroom Girls" was written for Townes Van Zandt, knowing the singer had been going to their shows, and "Hard Times" off the new disc was written to play for Levon Helm.

Though she may write some numbers with other artists in mind, after Harris recorded "Orphan Girl," Welch struggled to put her own stamp on the song.

"Oh, it was very hard," she says adding that it was the last song recorded for her debut and was cut more times than any other song.

"Even though she had done this extraordinary version of it and I was never going to be able to sing it like her, in the end I finally calmed down and did it with the knowledge that the person who writes the song always has an unassailable position from which to deliver it," Welch says. "No one is ever going to sing a song the way the person who wrote it sings it.

There's nothing I like more, even a writer who can barely croak, really can't sing, per se, I love hearing their version, (hearing them) singing the words that came out of their brain. You always understand some emotional nuance, some subtle complexity in the song that you never get from anyone else. Everything that is unspoken, that went into the song, is somehow back there and informs it. I love it."


If you go


What: Gillian Welch

When: 8 p.m., Saturday

Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway

Info: Tickets are $29.50 in advance, $32.50 the day of. (866) 8300.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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