Published Jan 01, 2006Halfway through Gillian Welch's latest album, Time (The Revelator), unexpectedly appears "I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll." Simply featuring Welch and partner David Rawlings on acoustic guitars, the song evokes her accepted image of dustbowl waif, in this instance placed in the immediate aftershock of Elvis Presley's arrival. Yet, when Welch reveals that Time is her most personal album to date, the obvious question is, should this song's sentiments be taken literally? "Yes," she says before adding, "It should be taken 50 ways at once."
For an artist whose songs seem to embody a specific time and place, Welch bristles at the notion that she is recreating some mythical American pastiche. "This album reflects Nashville, April, 2001," she says. "It's what was going on in my life at that time. It might not seem that way, but I don't care. Of course the songs are personal because I wrote them. It's a funny misconception that people have, and it almost makes me too angry to address it. I never write from the perspective of a character."
Instead, it's fair to say that Welch's songs are haunted by characters; in the case of the new album, the lonesome farm girl of "Red Clay Halo," the tragic figures of "April The 14th Part I," and Elvis, that most mythical of all Americans, appears in full form in "Elvis Presley Blues." "When you say Elvis, in that one word you conjure up an unimaginable amount of images and an unimaginable amount of tragedy, so that's why he's in there. I got some of what I wanted to say in that song, I don't know if I got all of it."
Where Welch did get all of it is on the closing 15-minute tone poem, "I Dream A Highway," easily the most challenging and beautiful piece she and Rawlings have produced so far. "They've been playing it on the radio," she proudly states when first asked about the song. "It just happened that all these lyrics I was writing belonged in that song. I tried to edit things out but it didn't make it better. In fact, it was the opposite; I realized that everything this record was about was in that song. Dave and I ultimately decided that we couldn't put it on unless the rest of the record felt complete, so if people want to stop it at Everything Is Free,' that's fine. I Dream A Highway' is more of a coda to the whole thing. I'm really surprised that many people have been saying it's their favourite song." It's clear that Welch's success overall has defied conventional logic of trends, especially in Nashville. While she was tailor-made to participate in the O Brother Where Art Thou? project, she feels that album's acceptance is only a part of the change she has been feeling in her adopted hometown over the last few years. "The industry really seems to be doubting itself right now, and they're searching for something else. Whether I have any part of it doesn't really matter to me. The town is just a more interesting place when it's in turmoil."