Long, strange trip

To hear her plaintive voice on a song like “Red Clay Halo” — “The girls all dance with the boys from the city/ But they don’t care to dance with me/ Well it ain’t my fault that the fields are muddy/ And the red clay stains my feet” — you’d swear Gillian Welch sprang straight from that very same blood-hued Georgia soil.

In fact, she was born in Manhattan and grew up in an L.A. show-biz family. (Welch’s adoptive parents were TV composers and arrangers, most notably producing the music for The Carol Burnett Show.)

As for her birth parents … well, Welch speculated to one journalist that maybe that explains her penchant for old-time music.

“All I’ve ever known is that my mom was a 17-year-old freshman at Columbia University, and my dad was some musician who was in Manhattan in 1967,” she related. “When I was a kid, it was so exciting to think about who my dad could be. … The list of [which musicians] could have been in Manhattan in ’67 is endless. So … [bluegrass pioneer] Bill Monroe? Check. Could be!”

While mostly joking about Monroe, Welch included a serious song about her beginnings on her new CD, Soul Journey (Acony Records, 2003). The unabashedly twangy “No One Knows My Name” gives us, “Oh my mother was just a girl of 17/ And my dad was passing through/ Doing things a man will do.”

Regardless of who her father was, though, music was definitely always in Welch’s blood.

As a child attending L.A.’s super-progressive Westland School, she began to study folk music, learning chord changes on her sister’s hand-me-down classical guitar. Welch took up a songwriting “journal” at an early age — wherein she scribbled down original tunes, plus her favorite classics by such artists as Woody Guthrie and The Carter Family.

Still, as a teenager, Welch immersed herself in the punk and alt-rock sounds her peers favored. Initially eschewing the serious study of music, she settled on a photography major at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

It was in that town that Welch had what’s widely been called her “bluegrass epiphany” — while cleaning her bathtub on a Sunday morning.

“One of my housemates put on a live Stanley Brothers record and something just clicked,” she reminisced to one reporter. “It’s still one of my favorite records.”

Despite her enthusiasm for old-time sounds, though, Welch’s first official band was a rock group in which she sang and played bass; the group specialized in Elvis covers.

Musically and professionally unfulfilled in Santa Cruz — Welch was working in a photo lab after graduation — she enrolled as a songwriting major at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. It was there that Welch plunged wholeheartedly into American traditional music, and it was there that she met fellow old-time enthusiast David Rawlings, who became her musical (and romantic) soul mate. (The superbly talented Rawlings, a renowned guitarist, co-writes most of the duo’s songs — though, to this day, he seems content to remain on the sidelines. One music writer called Welch and Rawlings “a duet named Gillian Welch.”)

Welch’s first musical successes involved penning tunes recorded by other artists, including Emmylou Harris, who included Welch’s “Orphan Girl” on her 1995 masterpiece Wrecking Ball (Elektra/Asylum). That same year, Welch released her own debut, Revival (ALMO Sounds), which included her haunting version of “Orphan Girl.” The release, produced by the illustrious T-Bone Burnett, scored a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk album.

Hell Among the Yearlings (ALMO Sounds, 1998) — a stark, finely crafted collection of lovely, dark, Southern-gothic songs — followed (“One Morning,” for instance, tells of a woman watching a horse slowly approaching, bearing the body of her dead son). The album is marked by Welch’s emotive clawhammer-banjo debut (she only learned to play the instrument just before recording began).

In between Yearlings and the critically acclaimed 2001 Acony Records release Time (The Revelator) came the phenomenon that was O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Tapped by old cohort T-Bone Burnett (who produced the soundtrack CD), Welch not only performed on the album, but assisted with its production — and enjoyed a cameo in the film.

The singer once likened the whole O Brother maelstrom to a “crazy dream in a candy shop,” particularly her working with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. After all, it was that Stanley Brothers record on that fateful Sunday morning that set the tone for her entire career.

Her song remains the same

By the time Welch released Time, her audience had expanded far beyond a smallish but enthusiastic gaggle of old-time enthusiasts. The album, though still spare and acoustic, is nonetheless interwoven with a deep strain of classic-folk-tinged rock and blues. More than one reviewer heard faint whispers of Neil Young & Crazy Horse lurking among Time’s general minimalism, as well as in Welch’s most recent release.

Soul Journey ranks as probably her most technically accomplished work to date. The songs, all but three co-written by Welch and Rawlings, contain the usual stories of heartbreak, death, addiction, loss and loneliness — or some unfortunate combination of all five.

“Comedians tend to be morose in their personal lives,” Welch told one reporter. “Happy people sing sad songs.

“People always ask me why I sing about death and sin and salvation and the devil,” she later commented. “And I think, ‘What else are you going to sing about?'”

Soul Journey is a departure for Welch, frequently employing a full band, while strains of Dobro, fiddle, organ and harmonica add a complimentary depth and color to these simple story-songs, combining to create a more lush Americana tapestry.

The most gorgeous cut, “I Made A Lovers Prayer” — “I made a lovers prayer/ And I watched the sky/ And a wall to cry/ It’s only you and I/ Oh how I tried” — is deceptively simple, a ballad that sounds as old as time itself and as newly troubling as today.

That duality — the trait Welch so admired in early old-time musicians — is her own chief talent.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Oh, you work in a genre that’s back in time,'” she told The Wall Street Journal. “And I say, ‘It might be back in time to you, but it’s not back in time to me. Every day, this is the world I live in.

“To me … history is never dead,” she elaborated. “It’s not dead to me. Nor do I see any sign of it being dead in the world. … That’s the nature of our culture.”

Or, as she told another reporter, “We’re still the same people we always were, and all the same s••t still happens: the dying, the sickness, the morphine addiction, the shooting … everything.”

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings play The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.; 225-5851) on Saturday, Oct. 18. Showtime is 9 p.m.; tickets cost $20 ($18/advance).

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