Gillian Welch Talks Tom Jones, John Prine and John Steinbeck
photo credit: Henry Diltz
I felt like I was in a fog for a while. I couldn’t really concentrate. A dear friend of mine, who came through Hurricane Katrina, said it was like a trauma—first the tornado and then having that segue immediately into the pandemic,” Gillian Welch says of the events that prompted a creative stasis nearly a year ago.
In the early morning of March 3, 2020, a tornado tore through East Nashville, and its path of destruction included the historic Woodland Sound Studios now owned by Welch and her partner Dave Rawlings. The storm peeled off the building’s roof, exposing equipment and archival tapes to a rainstorm. The pair immediately labored to salvage most of the items but, while they were still processing everything, COVID-19 cut its own devastating path.
After a period of malaise, Welch found therapeutic release by “sitting on the sofa each night, paging through the folk songbooks with Dave and bringing music back into our living room. We probably haven’t played this much without microphones since 1995.”
The pair eventually released a document of these evenings, All the Good Times, through their Acony Records label, which won a Grammy for Best Folk Album. In addition, Acony also issued Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, which presents 48 demos the duo retrieved from Woodland Studios. (Welch and Rawlings had originally recorded the material in 2002 to satisfy a publishing contract.)
Here, Welch reflects on her association with a variety of other artists over the years. In a second piece to follow, she revisits the All the Good Times and Boots No. 2 sessions.
After you arrived in Nashville, you initially landed a publishing deal before you signed a record contract. Over the course of your career, has another artist’s take on one of your originals revealed that song to you in a new way?
Tom Jones’ version of “Elvis Presley Blues” is extraordinary. I liked that he made it something different and yet was just completely true to the song. He had a relationship with Elvis and I feel that in the song. He’s coming from a very personal place. And yet he was able to use our song to express these deep feelings he had for Elvis. So for me, he elevated our song as a personal vehicle to transmit his feelings, which is the highest achievement.
Is there a song by someone else that induces you to transmit feelings in a similar manner?
“Hello in There” [by John Prine] is a masterpiece. It’s one of those songs where I can’t hit that last verse without getting emotional, and it happens every time. That is a great work of art. I’ve even had to excuse myself from the dinner table when “Hello in There” has come on. I know when they get to the last verse, I’m going to start crying. So I get up and go into another room because it’s like clockwork. [Laughs.]
I never thought I would sing that song publicly because I didn’t think I could get through it. [A version appears on All the Good Times.] Right before the tape starts rolling in our living room, Dave says, “Why don’t you do ‘Hello in There’?” In response—this is on the tape though it’s not on the record— I tell him, “I don’t think I can get through it.” Then he’s like, “Yeah, you can. Just sing it.” And then that’s the take.
So that’s a song where, every time, it’s just in there. And just for reference or ballast, another one that’s exactly like that, which I never sing publicly, is “Barbara Allen.”
Over the past year, which authors and artists did you turn to for inspiration or comfort?
At the beginning, I was so distracted that I almost couldn’t read. I also couldn’t abide almost any music, and I’d even shut off the radio when I got into the car. But then I slowly turned to the really dependable, tried and true. I think the first record I put on the turntable was a Bob Dylan record, though I can’t really remember which one. Everything sounded bad to me but Dylan sounded good.
One of the first books that I started reading was Steinbeck’s The Log From the Sea of Cortez. I’d already read every single Steinbeck book except that one because I thought it was going to be about Marine biology. But while sometimes you want to return to the great art that you already know—like putting Dylan on the turntable— other times you need new stuff that you don’t know to draw you in.
So I started into The Log From the Sea of Cortez and I was reminded that, with great artists, it doesn’t matter what they’re looking at. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t think I was interested in his trip down to Baja with his Marine biologist friend. All that matters is the way that he thinks and the way that he uses his words. It’s a beautiful thing when an artist you love does something you don’t expect to like and yet, once you get into it, you realize, “Oh, there’s the artist that I love, there’s the brain I love.” It’s that incredible thing that art does. It just draws you up and out of the world. That was good to remember again.
Now that you’ve completed the Steinbeck catalog, are you circling around for seconds on particular books or had you already done so?
I’ve read many of them several times. I even have a first edition of The Grapes of Wrath. A number of years ago, I walked into a great bookstore here in town called Elder’s and the guy said, “This one’s a little beat up, but it’s the first edition if you want it.”
I’ll also say that the last couple of pages of my copy of The Grapes of Wrath are tear-stained. Nobody completes a story like John Steinbeck. Some people’s stories end, his finish. With most of my copies of Steinbeck’s books, the last few pages are stained and the soundtrack has been plop, plop. I just love him to death.
The reason that I have read every Steinbeck book, though, is that the complete Steinbeck library arrived in a box one day with the most plain of notes. It was from his son, who had heard our records and was moved, so he thought I would like them. He heard some of his father in our records and he sent me his dad’s complete library.
This is before the time when it became easy to contact people through the internet, so I had no way to reach him. It’s just one of those strange little episodes in my life. He’s passed away now and I never met the man but that wasn’t what it was about. It was one of the purest gifts that’s ever been given to me. And so, over the years, to honor that— whenever I wasn’t sure what I was going to read—I would read one of those.
The fact that he could hear that during my first couple of years, while I was still a novice, is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received.