A Bittersweet Journey

After an eight-year break, fans and critics wondered, had Gillian Welch lost her muse?

Over a decade ago, Gillian Welch was associate producer on the legendary T Bone Burnett’s platinum-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and she rode the momentum of its unlikely success straight into the arresting masterpiece of her third album, Time (The Revelator). Stark, brilliant and cinematic, 2001’s Revelator made it clear that Welch’s first two records — the critically lauded Revival and Hell Among the Yearlings — were no fluke. She was an artist of the highest caliber, a songwriter who, with deep pathos, could channel the arcane mysteries of the American folk tradition while simultaneously capturing the struggles and triumphs of modern life in her timeless ballads. She was an artist — along with her close musical collaborator and duo partner David Rawlings — who had staked out her own singular territory, and was here to stay.

In 2003, Welch & Rawlings followed with the most upbeat album they’d released yet, Soul Journey, and continued their rise as beloved staples of the tight-knit folk-fest circuit. But in the years that followed, while the band stayed on the road and continued to write, no new album came. At first music critics, and then the duo’s fans began to whisper. After such a steady stream of standout records, why no new music?

“It just a took a while,” Welch says about the eightyear period between Soul Journey and the band’s latest, the aptly named Harrow & the Harvest. “I think Dave and I just had to get to a new place. We had worn out the very particular vantage point we were working from. We had to move on up the road a little, and look at everything from a new vantage point, and that’s what we did. It wasn’t really what I wanted; I didn’t want to let time go by.”

Welch, though, emphasizes that she was not suffering from writer’s block, a notion that has often been misreported or misconstrued. Her muse was still strong, and she was writing plenty of songs. “I just questioned my ability to look at my own work and accurately gauge it,” she says. “I was writing so much stuff I was unhappy with that I started to wonder if I was wrong. In the end, I don’t think I was wrong. Dave’s summation, which I think is very astute and economical is, ‘It lacked believability.’” Despite Welch’s songwriting slump, the two pressed on, resolutely laboring their way back toward creative form. In 2009, they collaborated on side project The Dave Rawlings Machine, which featured Rawlings on lead vocals. And later that same year, they began working on what, two years later, would be released as The Harrow & the Harvest. Naturally, the album grapples with the passing of time.

“The themes are fairly adult,” explains Welch, “really dealing with when things don’t go the way you thought they would, or the way you wanted them to, and coming out the other side of that. There’s a lot of loss in this record, though, ultimately, I don’t think it’s a downtrodden record. But there’s a lot of adversity.”

Indeed, trials and tribulations abound on The Harrow & the Harvest, from the lean times and jilted bride of “Scarlet Town,” and the heroin overdose and widening rifts between friends and ex lovers in “The Way it Goes” to the “suppin’ on tears” hunger of “Hard Times.” And yet, while undeniably wistful, the record is also permeated by a quiet, if fleeting, satisfaction; a feeling of contentment over the bounty at hand after all the hard work it took to create it. A feeling — for better or worse — of reaping what has been sown.

“Our work is fairly tied to the natural world,” says Welch. “There are plants and animals and seasons. ... Revelator is very wintery. There are no leaves on those trees. That’s a bare, sparse, bone-dry record. And this [new] record is very autumnal. It is after the harvest, for sure, in a really bittersweet way. Autumn is beautiful, but it is what it is.”

Gillian Welch • Mon, July 30 at 8 pm • Bing Crosby Theater • $32-$35 • All-ages • ticketswest.com • (800) 325- SEAT