It’s taken me a long time to listen to a Gillian Welch album, and even then it’s been because it’s a gift from one of my favourite people, and fellow country music enthusiast, Lucy Lehmann.
My first encounter with Gillian Welch was on Ryan Adams’s first solo album, Heartbreaker. I have flirted with her own songs since then but never bought an album because, well, there’s a lot of great music out there and I can’t buy it all. Thanks to Lucy, though, I’m likely to invest in the Welch back catalogue because The Harrow & the Harvest is a very fine piece of work.
The opening track, ‘Scarlet Town’, is both swampy and fugue-like, and in a way sets the rhythm for the rest of the record.
‘Dark Turn of Mind’ sounds like its subject matter, with oddly sweet harmonies. It is lonesome and blue without the sad. These harmonies appear throughout the album and give a depth to the whole record that it doesn’t sound like it needs but which it would be lacking without.
The lulling, rolling pace of the third track, ‘The Way it Will Be’, drew me in even when I had it on in the background, trying to concentrate on some work. But I couldn’t ignore it – it’s almost hypnotic.
There’s then a considerable shift to the toughness of ‘The Way it Goes’. The lyrics indicate regret – ‘that’s the way that it is/though there was a time when all of us were friends’ – but Gillian’s voice is unforgiving.
In turn that tough tone yields to the dirge-like ‘Tennessee’ and beyond, into musical swamplands that aren’t at all swampy. The record is redolent of banjoes and backhoes, of hard times, but when she sings ‘hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more’, we believe her. That extraordinary voice is full of light.
And it is Gillian’s voice that is perhaps the main reason for buying the album. You’d follow that voice into any tale it wants to tell, down uncertain trails and into harsh homes, then out into the fields and sunlight once more.
Gillian Welch, The Harrow & the Harvest (Acony, 2011)