Gillian Welch thrives on stripping music down to its barest necessities. It never really mattered that her music lacked the gloss and glitz that industry executives sought. But now, through luck or happenstance, the folksy bluegrass she’s loved her whole life has turned popular.
“My hope is that when I sing a 100-year old song for someone, I’m always, on some level, thinking, ‘See, we haven’t changed. We’re still just people,”’ Welch says. “The emotions are still the same.”
And with her fresh-from-the-hills twang, trademark flowery dresses and cowboy boots, Welch is an ideal bluegrass ambassador. Never mind that she grew up in California, the daughter of music writers for “The Carol Burnett Show.”
“People just have whatever predispositions they have. There’s no accounting for how writers find their genres and the same is true with musicians,” Welch said in a recent interview. “I grew up in L.A., but I was singing Carter Family and Woody Guthrie songs. When I got to be about eight years old, I thought the coolest thing in the world was to play an acoustic guitar and sing folk music.”
Welch and musical partner David Rawlings — she won’t say whether they’re romantically involved — met in 1991 at the Berklee College of Music in Boston when they both auditioned for spots in the school’s only country band. They both got in — he as lead guitarist, she as singer.
In 1992, they moved to Nashville together. Four years later, they released their debut album, the Grammy-nominated “Revival.”
“When we started performing, it was really on the songwriter circuit here in Nashville. That’s how this whole town is slanted. Everything is about the song and the songwriter,” Welch said. “If we’d been in a different city ... we just would’ve from the very beginning come up with a band name. We’d be The White Stripes, this two-person band.”
Turns out Welch and Rawlings were in the right place and the right time.
Traditional music hit the big time in 2000, with the unexpected success of the Grammy Award-winning soundtrack “O Brother Where Art Thou.”
Welch called that album a “mass media bomb.”
“All these people hear it and say, ’I like folk music.’ No one’s feeding it to them,” she said. “The truth is, it’s really good for your soul.”
The duet known as Gillian Welch released “Soul Journey,” their fourth album, in June. It’s traditional, folksy, predominantly sad, with minimal instrumentation — mostly dobro, fiddle and guitar.
Welch revives two classics, “Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor” and “I Had a Real Good Mother and Father.”
“Every traditional song to me has something big going on. They’re big songs. They deal with big topics,” she said. “People always ask me why I sing about death and sin and salvation and the devil. And I think, ’What else are you going to sing about?”’
During a recent performance in San Francisco, for the last song Welch and Rawlings unplugged their instruments, stepped away from their microphones and walked out onto the apron of the stage to perform the 1950s standard “The Long Black Veil.”
A hush fell over the crowd like a blanket.
“I love doing that,” Welch says. “People always have a strong reaction to it. It’s just one more thing removed from between you and the music, the electricity. It’s just all of us who are together in that 1,000-seat room for that night.”
Welch says music executives often encouraged her to perform happy, upbeat love songs with a bigger band. And she concedes that might have helped her sell more records.
“It doesn’t seem to serve the songs. They’re lonesome stories. They get less lonesome the more people you have. There’s a lot of people doing that and there aren’t that many people doing this other thing,” she says. “There’s stuff I want to explore in this much more pared down format, in this duet format. ... I love the constraint of it. It’s almost like working in sonnet form or haiku.”
Welch and Rawlings toured this summer with Norah Jones, another old-fashioned singer going against the MTV grain.
“We keep soldiering on this way,” she says, “because if we do something good enough and original, it will punch through."