Given the slow, unsteady cadence of the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings release schedule, their many followers take delight in news from either one of the pair. (They always come as a pair, though they are not always billed that way.) Even if a new offering is not new, original material—even if the songs are covers, and older ones at that—it’s newsworthy.
So here’s what’s new: All the Good Times, a collection of 10 covers, some of their “favorites,” recorded during the pandemic lockdown. It’s their first such collection, and the first album in their 25-year career to be credited as “Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.” The partners share the billing because, for the first time, they split the vocal duties right down the middle.
And here’s what’s old: Everything else about the release. (That’s not a diss.) Welch/Rawlings apply the same tried-and-true formula they’ve honed for a quarter century now: all-acoustic, duet-style, singing into a single mic. Even the recording method is antiquated: they dusted off a reel-to-reel to capture these songs; no DAT or hard drives for these two. (On one track, the tape reel runs out well before the last verse is over. It’s one of the more charming technical glitches in recent memory, a bug shrugged off as a feature. For a few seconds there I thought my laptop died.)
Then there’s the song material. It’s all old and faded, like well-worn denim jeans. You won’t find a song more recent than 1985 in the track list, and three of the songs date closer to 1895, if they can be dated at all. Fans hoping that Welch/Rawlings would take on their contemporaries, or genres other than Americana, may find their retrospective and traditionalist mood to be a disappointment. Their cover of Radiohead’s “Blackstar” thoroughly hit the mark back in 2005, but it didn’t signify a new direction for the artists—for the most part, they draw from the decades-old past when it comes to covering other performers.
This time out, some of their material is well over a century old—ballads and other tunes brought to the Appalachian mountains via old-world emigrants. Anyone who loved the Welch/Rawlings contributions to O Brother, Where Art Thou—“I’ll Fly Away,” for example—will welcome their return to this particular vintage. Faded denim jeans never go out of style.
As for songs of the 1900s—about two-thirds of the collection—there are two facets of American music that get attention. First comes the acknowledged greats in the folk-singer/instrumentalist tradition. Thus we hear Welch/Rawlings take on…
Elizabeth Cotten: The collection kicks off with Welch singing Cotten’s “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” a song that is equal to Cotten’s more well-known standards like “Freight Train” and “Shake Sugaree.” The original is more animated than the laid-back rendition presented here. If you admired how Welch sings “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor,” you’ll know that a slow, gentle number like this is going to hit the sweet spot.
Bob Dylan: Dylan’s influence is so deep and wide that they cover him twice. Rawlings sings lead on both tracks. First up is “Señor,” an excellent choice: it’s one of Dylan’s stronger pieces, but it has escaped overexposure. (Jerry Garcia has terrific versions of both “Señor” and “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie” and that may or may not be coincidental.) This particular rendering of the song falls a little flat. They play it in a register so low that Rawlings’ vocal lacks vitality; he literally runs out of air by the end of some lines. On Dylan’s “Abandoned Love,” from the mid-1980s period, Rawlings’ voice is back in form. The performance is slightly tongue-in-cheek in spots, with Rawlings sending up Dylan’s singing style.
John Prine: It’s surprising how Welch/Rawlings sidestep Dylan’s classic hits, but then go for one of the most classical of the John Prine classics, “Hello in There.” (How is it that a 22-year-old wrote one of the greatest songs about aging?) Maybe it’s partly due to Prine’s death just a few months ago, but listening to this track gave me the chills. As we’ve learned in the past few months, there are a hundred ways to cover John Prine, but this particular homage is one for the ages.
Norman Blake: Blake is better known as an instrumentalist than as a songsmith. From his work with John Hartford and Johnny Cash, to ground-breaking projects like Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Nashville Skyline, Raising Sands, and O Brother, Where Art Thou, Blake’s ace string-player reputation is second to none. As for writing good songs, he’s done that too, and Welch sings the lead on one of his best, “Ginseng Sullivan.”
The other facet of American music in play on this collection is mid-century Classic Country music. From this bin they chose two cuts that were popular before Welch or Rawlings were born. More importantly, both songs are uptempo numbers—a nice break from the sleepier cuts, and a great chance to hear Rawlings’ flatpicking dazzle. “Jackson” is the well-known hit for Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash; Welch and Rawlings are the ideal pair to revive it. Trading verses and singing in tandem as beautifully as June and Johnny, they do it right, and this track may be the album’s highlight. “Y’all Come,” recorded by Bill Monroe (among others) back in the 1930s, makes for a fine closer. It’s got that easy call-and-response chorus, and a positive message about people coming together: “Ya’ll come to see us when you can.”
Most creative artists responded to the coronavirus pandemic by firing up Instagram and Zoom and then sharing their work and their at-home selves. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have not followed suit, but they are sharing in their own unique fashion. All the Good Times is an invitation, to anyone listening, to return to the roots for awhile, to get back to basics, and to attend to what matters on all the levels that matter. “Let your roots feed your crown,” wrote Robertson Davies. It’s good counsel and a timeless message, but in the time of pandemic the sentiment is more timely than at other times.
All the Good Times Tracklist:
1. Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie (Cotten)
2. Señor (Dylan)
3 Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss (trad)
4 Hello In There (Prine)
5 Poor Ellen Smith (trad)
6 All the Good Times are Past and Gone (trad)
7 Ginseng Sullivan (Blake)
8 Abandoned Love (Dylan)
9 Jackson (Wheeler/Lieber)
10. Y’all Come (Duff)