In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
Gillian Welch is a yankee. There, it’s said. One would have a hard time discerning it from her mix of folk and bluegrass arrangements, but there’s a Big Apple right there on her birth certificate. So let it be noted that, when compared to some “legitimate” country music popularized and sung by those born and bred in the South, with their auto-tuned cartoonish absence of substance, an overabundance of shiny objects and pyrotechnics, and some ghastly redneck rap thrown in, it’s obvious that birthplace alone has little influence on how traditional or great country music is.
Welch went to different schools pursuing a music dream before meeting her longtime partner David Rawlings at the Berkeley College of Music and moving to Nashville 20 years ago. Her early efforts garnered a lot of critical acclaim and multiple Grammy nominations (losing to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen — not too shabby) and led to her associate-producing the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which, along with her soon-to-follow signature song “Miss Ohio,” greatly increased her exposure. Known for putting the depression into the No Depression genre, Welch imbues melancholy, hope, and raw emotion into everything she sings.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings — Pocahontas (live) (Neil Young cover)
From the moment Welch’s voice first breaks, the listener knows they are hearing something live, vulnerable, and real. That moment embodies everything about Neil Young’s “Pocahontas” and more: the warm hook of Young’s original song, Rawling’s attempt to resuscitate an old harmonica, and an aching apology (partly inspired by this) of heartbreak and regret.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings — White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane cover)
Welch doesn’t have the pipes to blast out Grace Slick’s psychedelic rock anthem, but Rawling’s noodling with the guitar and Welch’s commitment push aside any minor flaws so the rock and roll shines right through.
Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Old Crow Medicine Show — The Weight (live) (The Band cover)
Welch and Rawlings recorded a concert for BBC4 at St. Luke’s in London, and invited Old Crow to come on right at the end. Longtime buddies who have played together for a dozen years, their comfortable performance of “The Weight” is a big ol’ bear hug to an old friend of a song.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings — Long Black Veil (live) (Lefty Frizzell cover)
Covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger, and David Grisman, “Veil” explores a moral quandary with the narrator paying the ultimate price. Welch and Rawlings up the twang factor, making this the country song your parents warned you about.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings — Black Star (live) (Radiohead cover)
One of Welch’s best known covers, “Black Star” looks at a relationship from the other end of the telescope, blocking out the light pollution and focusing on inner space. Rawlings gets up on a ladder and puts glow-in-the-dark stars on everything.
Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss — Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby (live) (traditional)
One of the biggest hits from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, “Baby” gets an a cappella version similar to the soundtrack version by the same trio of chanteuses.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings — Beulah Land (Mississippi John Hurt cover)
The perfect song for a trip through the country with the top down. Welch and Rawlings’ arrangement of “Beulah Land” has enough warmth to push the dark clouds past the horizon, waiting for the chill of dusk to finally settle in.