Gillian Welch lets it be known before our conversation begins that she will likely be “a tiny bit distracted.”
Just a few hours earlier on this Tuesday morning in mid-May, news quickly spread detailing the death of Guy Clark, the masterful Texas/Nashville songsmith that influenced an entire generation of country, folk and Americana stylists, including Welch and longtime partner David Rawlings. So before discussion began on her own extraordinary sense of songcraft, the 20th anniversary of her debut record Revival and her first Lexington concert in more than a decade, we talk about Clark.
“He was a big, big supporter of that first record,” she said. “When I got to Nashville, Guy was a real cheerleader for me. Even before Revival came out, he would be out to dinner telling his friends, ‘Have you heard this new girl in town?’ He knew my songs well enough to play them to his friends. Barroom Girls was a particular favorite, which is funny because I wrote it mostly to impress Townes (Van Zandt, Clark’s longtime friend and fellow champion songwriter). But it kind of made sense that it got under Guy’s skin.
“Guy was a tremendous influence to Dave and myself. He took us on one of our first big tours. It was mostly through Texas, but Guy toured Texas the way most artists do the whole country.”
Touring for Welch, as it turns out, is as homespun in design and intent as her recordings, including her most recent work, The Harrow and the Harvest, an unadorned studio representation of the folk and pre-bluegrass country imagery she presents onstage in a duo setting with Rawlings. When the two tour, they tour alone. They drive themselves, absorbing the countryside and its surroundings in largely romantic fashion as they navigate from town to town.
“So many of our friends are given a time table when it comes to traveling,” Welch said. “They’re told when to show up at the bus to drive to the next town. I tried that for awhile and it’s numbing and dislocating. I did that just enough to know we would go insane in short order. You’re right, traveling like we do is romantic, but in the deepest way.
“When we drive around America, it so rich and so constant. Of course, there is the purely visual stuff — the people we see and the strange things they say and do. Back in the beginning we had no road manager and no sound man. It was just the two of us in a car, and that still works really well. I love my friends dearly, but Dave and I are pretty private people. If we had even one more person on the road with us, well…”
Of course, Welch’s reputation is built on songcraft, a penchant for remarkable folk infused portraits full of spiritual strife, earthy reflection and a keen sense of human observation. She offers up Elvis Presley Blues, a traditionally flavored folk fantasy from her third album, 2001’s Time (The Revelator), as an example of how some of her songs emerge in almost happenstance fashion.
“Dave and I were at this old bar in Nashville, The Gold Rush, shooting pool when we heard this couple nearby talking about Elvis Presley. They were laughing about how fat and silly he had become. Dave and I just stopped our game and thought, ‘How can you laugh at Elvis? He had such a tragic life but did so much during it. What have you done?’
“It kind of dealt with the passage of time, where people of a certain time kind of live past their time.”
While Welch’s songs may sound like they flow freely from her consciousness, she readily admits writing is a slow process for her, whether it be music for her own records or the band records cut with Rawlings in charge as Dave Rawlings Machine.
“Writing for me is so private and personal,” she said. “People ask me how I would go about co-writing with someone when really the only person that writes the way I write is Dave. The big reason we’re such a great team is that he writes the way I write alone, only better.”
Welch hinted that with Revival hitting its 20th anniversary of release this year, Friday night’s Lyric Theatre performance might open itself up to a few more tunes than usual from the album. But she also said that writing is underway for his next recording. When that record will actually surface, she doesn’t know. It’s been five years since The Harrow and the Harvest, which arrived eight years after its predecessor, Soul Journey.
“We’ve been writing for a couple of months now, but you’ll hard pressed to get me to say I’m optimistic about completing an album until I’m holding the finished tapes. I don’t count my chickens until they’re running around my feet.”
If you go
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
When: 8 p.m. June 3
Where: Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third
Call: 859-280- 2218
Online: Lexingtonlyric.com, Ticketfly.com, Gillianwelch.com