Singer-songwriter Gillian Welch released her debut album Revival in 1996 with her musical partner David Rawlings. Since then, the 54-year-old talent has established herself as an artist who is nothing short of beautifully anachronistic for our modern times.
In her haunting alto, Welch is a storyteller who unravels the woes of doomed sharecroppers, migrant workers, and other end-of-their-rope characters. From 1998's Hell Among The Yearlings to 2011's The Harrow & The Harvest, Welch's bluegrass is littered with morphine and heroin motifs -- her Appalachia knows early death and little mercy.
Welch herself grew up in Los Angeles and attended the University of California, Santa Cruz before attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was there that she first met Rawlings and the duo began honing their craft. The fact that Welch (nor Rawlings) did not live the stories they sing about has not rendered them any less powerful. Welch has a gift of returning to the past, which she uses to preserve traditional Appalachian, bluegrass, folk, and Americana music while spinning stories that capture the human experience at its most exposed.
With six full-length albums to her name and multiple bootleg volumes of The Lost Songs available, Welch's discography is vast. Read on to see our selections for Gillian Welch's ten most essential songs, so far.
"The Way It Goes"From: 'The Harrow & The Harvest' (2011)
If you're wondering about what kind of world you're stepping into when you listen to Welch's records, "The Way It Goes" is a fine introduction. The bluegrass track from The Harrow & The Harvest follows the lives of several hard-luck characters until they meet their inevitable demise. At first, we meet Becky Johnson when Welch sings, "Becky Johnson bought the farm / Put a needle in her arm / That's the way that it goes / That's the way." By the song's end, Welch is done looking outward and considers her own fate under this ethos: "When you lay me down to rest / Leave a pistol in my vest / That's the way that it goes / That's the way."
"Beautiful Boy"From: 'Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 2' (2020)
"Beautiful Boy" came out of a weekend-long recording session between Welch and Rawlings. After the session, the tracks were stashed away and remained in the archive until Welch and Rawlings decided to revisit them during the coronavirus pandemic. "Beautiful Boy" was finally released in 2020 on the second volume of The Lost Songs.
Like many of the tracks from these sessions, "Beautiful Boy" is less polished than many of Welch and Rawlings' other recordings. The bare-bones track leaves ample room for tenderness and beauty in the empty space between the spare guitarwork and Welch's voice. All of this fits with the soft vulnerability of the lyrics: "Cause I'm afraid of everything / Everything that romance brings / Freely givin' gifts that you can't repay / Sad goodbyes in darkened homes / And telephones, and most of all / I'm scared I'm gonna break your heart someday."
"All The Good Times Are Past and Gone"From: 'All The Good Times' (2020)
Welch's decades-long partnership with Rawlings has made the duo a fine-tuned machine. While Rawlings is usually playing harmony to Welch's lead on Welch's solo records, sometimes the roles reverse and the results are equally as special.
On the classic folk tune "All The Good Times Are Past and Gone," Rawlings takes the lead. Welch's harmonies have a mournful, howling quality that makes their rendition of the song unforgettable. The song is just one of ten cover tracks from the 2020 album All The Good Times - the first album that Welch and Rawlings recorded together and released under both of their names.
"Annabelle"From: 'Revival' (1996)
Welch's debut album, Revival, came out in 1996 and was nominated for Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Since then, Welch has become a mainstay in folk music as we understand it today. "Annabelle" is one of the most memorable tracks from Revival.
Welch sings "Annabelle" from the point of view of a sharecropper who wished to give their daughter a better life. Instead, "Anna's in the churchyard, she's got no life at all / She's only got these words on a stone." While "Annabelle" sounds like it could be a song from over one hundred years ago, its mourning is not bound to any particular time. Welch's chorus is universal: "And we cannot have all things to please us / No matter how we try / Until we've all gone to Jesus / We can only wonder why."
"Caleb Meyer"From: 'Hell Among The Yearlings' (1998)
Welch never looks away from the dark underbelly of life. She encourages us to join her gaze in songs like "Caleb Meyer," a track that tells the story of Nellie Kane, a mountain woman who kills her neighbor Caleb Meyer with a glass bottle as he's sexually assaulting her. The song is arresting for multiple reasons - not just the content of the lyrics. Welch delivers the story free of drama and sentiment, and Rawlings' guitar is like a train that can't be stopped.
What is most interesting about "Caleb Meyer," though, is the role God plays in the song - and what that says about the world in which Welch builds her songs. At the song's climax, Welch signs, "I cried My God, I am your child / Send your angels down / Then feelin' with my fingertips / The bottle neck I found."
"Look At Miss Ohio"From: 'Soul Journey' (2003)
2003's Soul Journey marked a different kind of record for Welch. It's a summer album - casual, languid, windows-rolled down. You'd be hard-pressed to say that about her other recordings, but for Soul Journey, it fits.
"Look At Miss Ohio" is one of the finest, most successful songs on the album, telling the story of a wayward beauty queen who's taking a break from expectations. In 2011, country superstar Miranda Lambert recorded the track and released it on her album Four The Record.
"By The Mark"From: 'Revival' (1996)
The nuances of Welch's voice are able to shine most fully on the reverent, simple hymn "By The Mark." Though it starts with some beautiful fingerpicking from Rawlings, most of the song is defined by simple strumming. The duo's voices are the primary instruments here. For a few stunning moments in the final chorus, Rawlings stops his strumming, and the duo goes full a capella. It's breathtaking, whether you share in the song's faith or not.
"Everything Is Free"From: 'Time (The Revelator)' (2001)
When Welch wrote "Everything Is Free," Napster had just arrived, impairing artists' abilities to earn a living seemingly overnight. She captured the anxiety of the moment impeccably, without ever naming Napster or the internet in her lyrics. She sings, "Everything is free now, that's what they say / Everything I ever done, gonna give it away / Someone hit the big score, they figured it out / They were gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn't pay."
In 2018, Welch talked with Rolling Stone about the song. She said, "There were a number of songs I can remember crying while working on them, and that was the case with this one."
"Revelator" From: 'Time (The Revelator)' (2001)
When Welch released Time (The Revelator) in 2001, the album received high praises from critics. It appeared on numerous "best of the year" lists, including lists from Mojo, The New Yorker, The Village Voice, and Uncut.
"Revelator" opens the album, a six-minute, twenty-two-second, slow-moving musing on time. Welch sings, "The fortune lady came along she walked beside / But every word seemed to date her / Time's the revelator, the revelator." Meanwhile, "Revelator" showcases some of Rawlings' finest guitar work.
"I'll Fly Away"From: 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' (2000)
"I'll Fly Away" is one of the most recorded gospel songs of all time. Of the countless recordings to date, Welch's collaboration with Alison Krauss remains the greatest of all time. The two bluegrass greats recorded the song together for the soundtrack of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou. Produced by T Bone Burnett, the track features Welch on lead vocals while Krauss provides superb harmonies. Listening to Welch and Krauss bring their voices together, it's not hard to believe that they just might take flight.