Gillian Welch's recent Appalachian-Gothic album The Harrow & The Harvest, her first in eight years, almost never happened. Although she'd appeared on albums by friends like Bright Eyes, the Decemberists and Robyn Hitchcock, the woman who'd shaken up the alt-country scene with her '96 debut Revival had secretly begun to doubt her own songwriting abilities.
"And at my darkest moments," recalls Welch, "after so much time had gone past, I just had to say, well, maybe I'm just not gonna do this anymore — maybe I just don't have anything else to say,'" she recalls.
Welch crossed her Rubicon at the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival last October in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, where — as usual — she and her musical partner David Rawlings were invited to perform. "It's just a magical event, and absolutely, hands down, one of our favorite festivals on the planet," she says. "But when we walked offstage last year, we felt like that was the last straw — I just couldn't imagine playing any more shows without new songs."
Something snapped that day for the duo, who retreated back to their native Nashville and set up an almost scientific plan of attack. "We bought an enormous dry-erase calendar and started writing on it in colored pens," says Welch, who doggedly unearthed her muse, one hard-won tune at a time. "And every week, we'd write 'New song!' then the next was 'Two new songs!' and then 'Three new songs!' the next week. We just wrote down what we would have to do, and we stuck to it. And we've never had such a concentrated and fruitful writing spurt as what happened to us over October, November, December and January. All of our frustration, and all of our disappointment from the last few years just finally found a voice."
And what a voice. There isn't a note — nor tersely worded lyric — out of place on Harrow, which Welch issued on her own Acony imprint. It opens with the grimly plucked murder ballad "Scarlet Town," sidles through the sinuous blues of "Dark Turn of Mind," and peaks in the gorgeous ballad "Down in Dixie," wherein her hickory-smoked warble softly sketches the American South with "Banjos a-strummin', horseflies a-hummin', ripe melons on the vine / The Gold and the Gray, we'd sing 'Look Away' way down along the Dixie line."
A banjo-clucking "Hard Times" even taps into vintage Stephen Foster-isms. And there's good reason for that, Welch explains: "I spent some time looking through his songs and reading through his lyrics — Dave and I found a great website that catalogs his entire written work. And it was really heartening for me to look and see that — for at least a solid year prior to his writing "Hard Times" — he was writing toward that song. Many of the same words, themes and phrases were appearing in other songs, and they were starting to coalesce. And as a writer who doesn't work particularly quickly, it was great to see his progress toward what I consider to be the pinnacle of his career."
Now, Welch's fans are welcoming her back with open arms, she says. "And I can't tell you how much it means to me that there's all this good will out there in the world for us, and that people have actually missed us. Because everybody likes to be missed, ya know!"