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Off the Beaten Tracks – Gillian, with gritted teeth


This week’s selection is, by way of a change, a contemporary artist, if you can call someone contemporary who has released five albums in 22 years and nothing since 2011.

Born in New York in 1967 and raised among showbiz types, Gillian Welch (Gillian pronounced with a hard G, as in granite) seems more like the product of a harsh Appalachian upbringing. She and her partner David Rawlings produce dark, spare, unflinching, country-tinged songs which often sound as if they could have been written 40 or 50 years ago for a prayer revival meeting.

Indeed Revival is the title of Welch’s first album, released in 1996. I caught her on a TV music programme at about that time and noticed she sang through gritted teeth. The initial track, Orphan Girl, is a pretty solid indicator of what’s to come and has been covered by at least seven other acts including Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. One More Dollar is a salutary tale about gambling while By The Mark can only be described as religious hard core – ‘I will know my Saviour when I come to him, by the mark where the nails have been.’

Two years later came Hell Among The Yearlings with further laugh-a-minute offerings such as My Morphine, on the misery of addiction, Good Til Now and I’m Not Afraid To Die.

Incidentally, Welch also contributes to Rawlings’s own solo albums but they aren’t a patch on hers.

In 2001 came Time (The Revelator) which includes the brilliant April the 14th Part 1, combining the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the Titanic hitting an iceberg in 1912 and the Oklahoma and Texas dust storm of 1935, all on that same date. Everything Is Free is a mournful classic.

In what counted for her as a flurry of activity, Welch was back in the studio within months for a fourth album, Soul Journey, released in 2003, which featured a slightly livelier instrumentation including electric guitars and drums, as on the lively Wayside/Back In Time. Nevertheless my favourite cuts are more in her customary slow acoustic style – One Little Song

and I Made a Lover’s Prayer.

After an eight-year hiatus came an album worth waiting for, The Harrow and the Harvest, showing Welch and Rawlings at the top of their game. Tennessee is another terrific dirge while Hard Times is impossible for me to hear dry-eyed, but as regular readers will realise I’m a sucker for sentimental songs about animals. This one being a mule.

And that’s it, albumwise. Welch and Rawlings continue to tour like demons and there’s lots of great live stuff on YouTube but no sign yet of a return to the studio. Come on, Gillian, one more wouldn’t hurt.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to

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