Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Rural-Urban Presence of Gillian Welch

This morning American Songwriter is reporting that Gillian Welch will release a new album in late June, The Harrow & The Harvest, her first full length recording in eight years.  While Ms. Welch and her partner David Rawlings have created some of the very finest "alt-country" (or whatever term one wishes to use), a proper Gillian Welch record has been notably absent for almost a decade, and we're so happy to hear the wait has come to an end.

Gillian Welch has a unique presence within the context of this site and the ideas we're trying to understand and map out. In many respects, her earlier recordings stand as one entry-point for how urban listeners (and a largely college-educated contingent) continue to grapple with the issues of the rural arts and rural place. Indeed, she was mentioned in the New York Times cover story on the Virginia Crooked Road, and implicitly categorized as a "bluegrass" artist from the Appalachian region--two distinctions that readers of this site questioned in emails I recently received. It's a testament to the power of her music that journalists make such assumptions and mis-classifications; though born and raised in New York City and Los Angeles, her music speaks to elemental experiences well beyond any fixed place. 

What I feel is far more important is the way in which her music crafted an audience that would become the first wave of a number of the cultural movements--emanating from the cities--which offer such promising prospects for rural arts and culture. Listening back to 2003's Soul Journey, we find the musical accompaniment to what would follow shortly after that record's release: Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, the emerging CSA movement, a renewed interest by urban folks in engaging with traditional (and rural) arts and crafts, a historical and artistic consciousness that extends beyond the current season. Though I don't have the numbers in front of me, I would bet a large percentage of people who support the worthwhile crowdfunded projects we've discussed here also have Gillian Welch records in their home.

While there has always been a vibe of "sustainability" to her music--long before such a term became over-used--there is also a suggestion, an urging to her urban listeners, that while they may not be "from the country" they can find ways to begin to culturally identify with rural traditions, and, through related kinds of agricultural acts, with rural place itself. Though this kind of identification comes with its own complications, we have to see this as a promising step towards shedding a rural-urban binary that only works to the disservice of both places. 

Here's more information on The Harrow & The Harvest, with a few songs included below:
June 28 will see the release of Gillian Welch’s first album in eight years, the stunning The Harrow & The Harvest. The Harrow & The Harvest was recorded at her own Woodland Sound Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, and was produced by guitarist and collaborator David Rawlings.
38 independent record stores will preview The Harrow & The Harvest (go to for details). Welch and Rawlings will launch a tour of seventy cities on May 20 that will stretch into the fall.
The Harrow & The Harvest “is a new Southern sound,” writes Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, “with the sort of songs you wouldn’t be surprised to hear issuing from some verdant, wooded hollow in Appalachia; Songs you’d expect to hear hollered from an Asheville grange hall, all too late in the evening. Songs with the wry humor of the back porch. Listen to this record with the lights low. Listen to it on an old radio, cradled next to your ear.”