High on a Mountain
A songwriting workshop with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, the new stars of old-time country
By Simone Solondz
Rape, death, and tough women left alone to protect their homesteads have been the stuff of folk music since the first murder ballads were sung. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings do the tradition proud with their latest collaboration, Hell among the Yearlings, produced by T Bone Burnett. If the duo’s debut recording Revival was too heavy for you, you’d better not spin this one. It’s only for those listeners who enjoy a dip in the deep, dark holler. The record, named after an old fiddle tune, is remarkably true to Welch and Rawlings’ spellbinding live performances--almost nothing is added to their vocal and instrumental interplay. Anchored by Welch’s rock-solid rhythm playing, Rawlings’ pianistic leads on his 1935 Epiphone archtop are as sweetly dissonant as ever, and his harmonies under Welch’s straight-ahead delivery bring goose bumps to the flesh.
The duo’s songs are known for their stark, raw simplicity--lyrics boiled down to their essence to tell tales of hardship, hope, and human frailty. It’s this kind of writing that captured the attention of Emmylou Harris, Tim and Mollie O’Brien, and Trisha Yearwood, just a few of the many artists who have covered Welch and Rawlings’ songs.
The biggest change since Revival is the addition of Welch’s banjo playing, which she picked up (incredibly) only about a year before Hell among the Yearlings was recorded. Her frailing on "The Devil Had a Hold of Me," "One Morning," "Winter’s Come and Gone," and "Rock of Ages" hits the mark again and again. Welch and Rawlings shared their experiences recording the new album and got into the nitty-gritty of how they compose and arrange together in a preconcert workshop at the Acoustic Guitar Festival last August.
IN SEARCH OF TRANSPARENCY
One of the first songs Welch wrote on banjo was "Winter’s Come and Gone," although it later evolved into a two-guitar arrangement. The song is a good example of how she works with Rawlings. "Dave is really good with plot development and is a really good editor," she said. "After I get as far as I can with the initial inspiration--spitting out as much as I possibly can--then we start working on it together. The grueling part is filling in the gaps.
"Other genres might be more cerebral, and people might appreciate clever wordplay or a rhyme. But in the more traditional genre we work in, I think it’s a mistake if anyone’s aware of me as a writer. I just want them to hear the story and the character and the emotion. The aesthetic of transparency is what we deal with all the time."
Both partners insist that they’re not trying to sound old-fashioned or "timeless." "Hopefully the stuff sounds contemporary," Welch said, "because that’s what it is. These stories have never been told before, and these words have never been strung together before."
"A lot of times, the idea is so small," Rawlings added. "She’ll have a really great verse, but we’ll bang our heads against the wall for a while and nothing will follow it up. Sometimes what we find is that the first two lines of the [original] four-line verse are the first two lines of the song, and the last two are the last two lines of the song. And then you’ve got to stretch it and fill in the middle."
The addition of the banjo deeply affected the songs written for Hell among the Yearlings. Welch believes that the banjo adds a nice texture but provides its own set of challenges. "The banjo songs tend to be more repetitive," she said, "because the rhythm is so incessant and also because I’m not really worrying about chord changes as much. It’s more modal, and I use the drone string a lot. I just play the melody and that’s it. It’s a little bit hypnotic."
Rawlings pointed out that all of the songs Welch wrote on banjo encompass a series of melodically identical verses rather than the verse-chord-bridge structure modern listeners have become accustomed to.
The secret to Welch and Rawlings’ success is more than their outstanding songwriting. What makes the music so compelling are their performances, live and on record, which feature Rawlings’ subtle and vital accompaniment, played on a small-bodied old archtop whose thin sound is somehow perfect for the setting. "I just move my capo around until I find something that inspires me to do something," he said. "As soon as I get bored, I realize that part doesn’t have to be there."
"Every guitar has a sweet spot," Welch interjected, "and every arrangement has a place where it’ll work and a place where it won’t work."
But more than the key he chooses to play in, it’s Rawlings’ (literally) offbeat sense of timing that grabs the audience. "I can’t really play straight flatpicking," he explained. "It just doesn’t feel right to me. I drone a lot, I keep stuff ringing a lot, but that’s mostly because there’s just two of us. I sort of cross-pick, and that developed because it seemed to line up with the strum that Gill does. It should sound like one calliope sort of thing."
As an example, they played some of "One More Dollar," in which Welch’s guitar part covers rhythm as well as a bass line that clearly stands out from the rest of what she’s playing. "I think it’s helpful to have a playing style like that when you’re just playing with two people," Rawlings said. "It’s a lot harder to accompany somebody who plays real blocky, strummy stuff. Gill stays off the middle two strings--the D and the G--and that leaves room for me."
Rawlings keeps things interesting by frequently stepping outside the chords. The results are somewhat jarring and very stirring. "I like to play something inside the key at the same time I play something outside," he explained, "so it stays grounded. I try to play guitar like Bob Dylan plays harmonica. He picks up the wrong harp and it’s beautiful, because he’s got about three notes in there that are in the key and about five that aren’t. It’s like a big rubber band stretching."
Welch’s banjo playing has opened up some new possibilities for Rawlings as well. She tunes her banjo d D G C D (where the lowercase d is the drone string, tuned in unison with the highest-pitched D in the other strings). So she ends up playing only three notes, providing, in her words, "very little harmonic information, but more of a continuous palette. I’ve always got tonic stuff ringing, so in a way, we never leave the I chord."
Rawlings has no trouble building on this foundation. "I’m maybe adding a note or two in once in a while," he explained. "It didn’t take long to figure out which notes worked and which ones were sort of annoying."
IN THE STUDIO
After expending so much time and effort achieving their perfectly blended, natural sound on stage, it would be a shame for Welch and Rawlings to go into the studio and make your standard acoustic-duo-with-backup-band record. Fortunately for us, they met producer T Bone Burnett before they even had a record contract. Burnett helped them make Revival and Hell among the Yearlings true to their musical vision.
The key to capturing the spirit of the songs is that they record everything live, so that the vocals, guitars, and banjo all bleed into one another in the mix. "All the stuff on the first record was mixed live to mono," Rawlings said. "When it was done, it was done. There’s no changing anything."
What Burnett had to offer were his ears and his opinions. "He’s a stupendous judge of performance," Welch explained. "When we finished a take, he’d say, ‘That was really close. Do another one right now." Or, ‘That was it. Let’s listen back.’ He’s really dead-on with that stuff."
Putting the tracks together for both records was easy. According to Welch, "They seemed to dictate themselves. Rawlings recalled that they were sure about nine tracks on the new record and wrote the last one, "Only One and Only," in the studio.
Welch and Rawlings have some "leftover tracks" kicking around as well as some live performance tracks, which will probably appear on their next record.
Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar magazine April 1999, No. 76.
The article also includes the music and lyrics to "Caleb Meyer."