How Gillian Welch Created an Americana Touchstone in 'Revival'

Twenty years after the release of her debut album, Welch and David Rawlings' close harmonies and imaginative storytelling remain influential

Gillian Welch released her debut album 'Revival' in 1996. Credit: Simon Ritter/Redferns

Early afternoons were pretty quiet at the Lyric Springs Country Inn. The previous night's guests usually left in the morning, headed for home or into Nashville about 20 miles away. The next guests would not arrive until evening.

This gave the innkeeper – a tall, waifish 24-year-old redhead from Los Angeles – all day to make the beds, dust the oil lamps and horsehair chairs, and tend to Jubal, her boss's 200-pound English Mastiff. That's one reason she liked this job. With only Jubal to keep her company, the innkeeper could spend all day composing songs aloud as she mopped the floors and pruned the peony bushes.

One morning, on her 40-minute commute from Nashville, the innkeeper was listening to a cassette tape of the Stanley Brothers. She decided to write a song the Stanleys might enjoy singing in their high lonesome voices. She reached over, switched off the cassette deck, and began to sing.

"I am an orphan, on God's highway / But I'll share my troubles if you go my way."

The innkeeper continued to work on the song throughout the day, her voice ringing off the wood-paneled walls of Lyric Springs' barroom and the porcelain of its toilets.

"I have had friendships pure and golden / But the ties of kinship, I have not known them."

The song was finished by the time she got back in her car and headed home. What started as an idea a few hours earlier now had four verses and two choruses.

"I have no mother, no father / No sister, no brother / I am an orphan girl."

When she got home, the innkeeper grabbed a guitar and her duet partner, an equally skinny guitar picker she'd met while attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. She played him the new song, but he didn't say anything. "I thought, 'Oh well, he doesn't like it.' But he says he didn't say anything because he thought it was perfect, so what was there to say?" she recalls.

It wouldn't be long before many people shared the guitar picker's opinion. This song, "Orphan Girl," would open lots of doors. It would launch a career that would make the innkeeper one of the most beloved figures in a new music genre called "Americana." And it would take her away from scrubbing other people's' toilets forever.

Gillian Welch arrived in Nashville in the summer of 1992, after two years at Berklee studying under songwriting guru Pat Pattison. Welch had been writing songs since childhood. Her adoptive parents, writers for the Carol Burnett Show, sent her to a "progressive independent" elementary school where students had daily folk song sing-alongs. At home, she filled notebooks with her own songs, although she never performed them publicly. Pattison showed Welch how to approach songwriting in an analytical, craftsman-like way, teaching her to use rhyme, rhythm, repetition and word choice to build a world inside a song.

Pattison also introduced Welch to Music City. He organized annual spring break trips to Nashville, where students could meet agents, managers, established songwriters and other music industry types. Welch was so smitten she left Berklee before completing her degree. "I decided nobody cares about a diploma in music," she says.

Several other Berklee students moved to Nashville that summer, too, forming a mutual admiration society that got together for picking parties, guitar pulls and occasional gigs at clubs around town. David Rawlings moved from New England about six weeks after Welch arrived in town. Unlike Welch, he was a relative latecomer to music – he didn't start playing until he was 16, when a friend suggested he ask for a guitar for Christmas so they could perform at their Rhode Island high school's talent show.

By the time he moved to Nashville, Rawlings was enamored with brother duets like the Stanley Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, the Monroe Brothers and the Delmore Brothers. Welch liked that music, too, so one day they pulled together some chairs in Rawlings' kitchen and sang "Long Black Veil." "That was the first time we'd sat down and listened to our vocal blend. It wasn't anything great, but we had some blend," Rawlings says.

They began going to writers' nights and open mic nights together, where they'd sit for hours just to play two songs. While Rawlings had played in tons of bands, Welch had almost no stage experience. "I really encouraged her, you have to play out every opportunity you can," he says.

These early gigs did not provide much in the way of money or recognition, but they were instructive. While other struggling songwriters tried to write songs to fit Nashville's sound of the day, Welch saw her songs going a different direction. "I wanted a song you couldn't tell which year it was from. Those were the songs I loved."

To write those kinds of songs, Welch would often pick an artist she admired and write a song for them, like she did with the Stanley Brothers and "Orphan Girl." She had Townes Van Zandt in mind as she wrote "Barroom Girls," a tune that could serve as a prequel to his own "Loretta." She wrote "Tear My Stillhouse Down" after hearing Peter Rowan perform Bill Monroe's "Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine" at the Station Inn.

As Welch expanded their set list with more and more original material, she and Rawlings sought gigs outside the usual songwriter clubs. One of the first times Denise Stiff remembers seeing the duo perform was at the Mall at Green Hills, an upscale shopping center in Nashville's suburbs.

Stiff was managing bluegrass chanteuse Alison Krauss at the time and had learned of Welch through Pattison. She liked what she heard and soon signed on as Welch's manager. One of Stiff's first goals was to find Welch a publishing deal. "It was a way for her to be able to stop working, so she'd have an income and focus on her music," she says. She knew just who to call.

In the spring of 1994, Gillian Welch showed up, guitar in hand, to a white two-story stucco house near Nashville's Music Row. This was 1904 Adelicia Street, home of Almo Irving Music, a publishing company owned by Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert. Stiff had sent her there to meet with David Conrad.

Conrad had a reputation around town as a "song man" – someone who could appreciate music for its artistic merit and not just its commercial viability. Stiff also knew he had a special affinity for women singer-songwriters, having worked with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Nanci Griffith. "As soon as I heard Gillian's stuff, I thought 'David is the guy that's going to get this,'" Stiff says.

Now Welch was at his doorstep. "She was skinny as six o'clock and dressed very plainly," Conrad remembers. "That was her style. Thrift store stuff." After some small talk, Conrad got straight to business. "I said, 'Well, let's not waste time. Play me something.'"

It was rare even in the early 1990s for an artist to perform in a publisher's office. Most had cassette tapes, DATs or CDs to show around. Welch did not. She uncased her guitar, perched on the edge of a green leather chair, and began to sing "Orphan Girl."

Conrad says he was instantly smitten. "You're not ready for anything that powerful coming from someone who's just hit town. You just don't hear people with that kind of gift." Still, he kept his cool. He asked Welch about her next gig. It was at the Bluebird Cafe, Welch and Rawlings' first full set at the legendary songwriters club.

Welch remembers the night as a "feeding frenzy" – Conrad was one of a half-dozen publishers in the audience that night hoping to sign Welch. There's no dressing room at the Bluebird, so after her 45-minute show, Welch avoided the scrum waiting offstage by ducking down a hallway near the kitchen, past the bathroom and cigarette machine, where she'd stashed her guitar case. When she'd packed the guitar away, Welch turned around to see Conrad blocking her way back into the barroom. "He kind of pushed me back by the cigarette machine and offered me a deal before anybody else could get to me," she says. "And I said, 'yes.'"

Other publishers were offering more money, but that didn't matter. She knew Conrad understood her music in a way the others didn't. "I've never regretted it for a single second. I knew right then, he was the man."

Welch scored some respectable cuts at Almo. Brother-sister bluegrass duo Tim and Mollie O'Brien recorded both "Orphan Girl" and "Wichita" on their 1994 album Away Out on the Mountain. In 1995, the Nashville Bluegrass Band recorded "One More Dollar" and "Tear My Stillhouse Down" for their LP Unleashed, which won the 1996 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. Welch also had a song on that year's Best Contemporary Folk Album: Emmylou Harris included "Orphan Girl" on her seminal Wrecking Ball.

As the buzz around her songs increased, Welch soon landed her own recording contract. Itching to get back into the record business, Alpert and Moss founded Almo Records in 1994 and began looking for artists to pad its roster. Moss envisioned selling Welch as a mainstream country artist. Conrad, who was already shopping his songwriter around to other labels, insisted that approach wouldn't work. "I said, 'This isn't going to be Trisha Yearwood or Faith Hill,'" Conrad recalls. "He sort of shrugged and said, 'Really. We're signing her anyway.'"

The first time T Bone Burnett met Welch and Rawlings, after a gig at the Station Inn, he cut right to the chase. "I think he might have said, 'Do you wanna make a record? Let's make a record,'" Welch says.

It was an easy sell. Burnett had produced for Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison, Los Lobos, Counting Crows and a long list of others. Welch and Rawlings believed he understood the kind of album they wanted to make, and Burnett felt the same way. "We all have sort of a sideways streak. There was a lot of freedom in the idea of what it would mean to make a record," Burnett says. "She and David had such a magical thing. They shared a dream and sang right inside it. It was intimate and beautiful."

Welch and Rawlings spent their first day at Sunset Sounds in Los Angeles with Burnett and engineer Rick Pekkonen picking out microphones and guitars. Welch selected a small-bodied Gibson acoustic from a collection of guitars Burnett had brought along. Rawlings, however, couldn't find anything to suit him. He tried all of Burnett's guitars, along with the Taylor and Martin guitars he and Welch shipped from Nashville. Everything sounded too dark, causing his solos and fills to get lost in muddy mid-range frequencies.

Finally, when he had tried every other guitar in the studio, he picked up the Epiphone archtop he'd brought along on a whim. Rawlings found it in Rhode Island on a buddy's workbench, covered in sawdust with no strings and no bridge. He took it home to Nashville, where he asked master luthier Joe Glaser to fix it up. The guitar wasn't finished until the day before he and Welch shipped their guitars to Los Angeles. Rawlings only had time to strum a single G chord: "I think, 'That's a cool sound, I'll box it up.'"

Now, standing behind a microphone at Sunset Sounds, Rawlings gave the guitar its first proper workout. When Pekkonen ran the tape back, Rawlings instantly knew he'd found what he was after. The Epiphone's tone was bright and razor-sharp enough to cut through a mix. Depending on how he plucked and strummed, it could chime like a bell or jangle like a mandolin. "That was a real 'wow' moment," Welch remembers. "That was a big piece of the puzzle."

There were many other pieces to be assembled, however. Welch and Rawlings entered the studio with about 30 songs in their repertoire. A few days before they entered the studio, they began the long process of whittling that list into an album.

Burnett took a pencil and, writing in all capital letters, made a list of every song. If Welch, Rawlings and Burnett decided to record the song, he would underline the title. If they recorded the song and captured a good performance, he put a dot beside it. If the performance was really good, Burnett marked it with a capital "M," for "master." If the performance was spectacular and had to appear on the finished album, he circled the M and went over it with a red Sharpie.

During the first five days in the studio, Welch and Rawlings cut four tracks worthy of a big red "M." Recording live to tape, in mono, the duo knocked out album versions of "Acony Bell," "Annabelle," "Barroom Girls" and "By the Mark." "They were incredibly polished," Burnett says. "If you listen to 'Annabelle,' you would think they're old mountain singers from deep in the last century." They also recorded guitar and vocal parts for "One More Dollar," but the song would receive some additional adornment before Burnett got out his marker.

Rawlings says Burnett liked their duet material but wanted to flesh out the sound a bit more. He also knew Almo would not agree to an album of mono recordings with only two voices and two guitars. So Burnett attempted to strike a balance: he would structure a full band sound around Welch and Rawlings' well-honed arrangements. "There was very little to do but bring in other collaborators," Burnett says.

He pulled together a team of top studio musicians: Greg Leisz on dobro and Weissenborn, Armando Compean on bass, former Elvis bandleader James Burton on electric and resonator guitar, and drummer Jim Keltner, who had worked on records by Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson and three ex-Beatles. Over the remaining three weeks at Sunset Sounds, the ensemble recorded master-worthy versions of "Barroom Girls," "One More Dollar," "Tear My Stillhouse Down" and "Only One and Only." "They were super-sized versions of what we were playing [as a duet]," Welch says. "Even the licks. The bass player was playing what I was playing on my low strings."

But the album was still a few tracks too short. With their studio time in California used up, Burnett, Welch and Rawlings decamped to Woodland Studios in East Nashville to record some songs that hadn't worked in Los Angeles. They hired engineer Rick Will and called in some top Nashville players – John Hughey on pedal steel, Buddy Harman on drums and Roy Huskey Jr. on bass.

"'Revival' wasn't a bomb. That was amazing"

One of the songs Welch and Rawlings wanted to reattempt in Nashville was the rockabilly-esque "Pass You By." Burnett put Huskey in the corner of the studio with the front of his upright bass facing out into the room. Welch stood about six feet away with a Les Paul Junior she'd borrowed from Burnett slung over her shoulders. Rawlings plugged the guitar into an amp he'd stashed in a soundproof booth. "I figured Gill would play the guitar really loud if she couldn't hear the amp," he says.

Huskey began the song with a quick count-off before laying into a walking bass line, thumping the strings with such force it sounded like the instrument would fold in half. "He just filled the whole room with that bass," Burnett says. Welch, in turn, thrashed her electric guitar, unaware of the ferocious tone her amp was producing in the isolation booth. "I wanted to play it loud enough so he could hear me. I'm trying to get all that sound out of what, to me, is an unplugged electric guitar."

Huskey and Welch powered through three verses and choruses before ending on a final crushing D chord. Huskey, who would be diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after the record was released, was spent. "When he got through, he had to stop. He went outside and chilled for a long time. That was the last take we did," Burnett says.

The Nashville sessions also produced the album version of "Paper Wings." The musicians recorded the track as a slowed-down country shuffle with brushed drums, walking bass, touches of pedal steel, and a spacey guitar solo by Jay Joyce, (who's since gone on to produce hit albums by Eric Church and Little Big Town). Welch and Rawlings were not pleased with the sound of the vocal tracks, however, so they called in Gary Paczosa, who had engineered a demo recording of "Paper Wings" about a year before. Paczosa brought over the microphone he used in the demo and overdubbed Welch's vocals over the band track. It only took a few takes before the song was finished, so Paczosa also helped record Rawlings' guitar part and harmonies on "Pass You By."

The album still was not complete when Welch and Rawlings ended their time at Woodland Studios. It would take one more trip to L.A. to get the performance they needed of "Orphan Girl." But during his few days in the studio with the duo, Paczosa noticed something. "They were frazzled," he says. And there seemed to be something going on between Rawlings and Burnett. Burnett didn't even step into the control room during his time at Woodland. "He stuck his head in the door and said 'Make it great.' And that was it," Paczosa says.

The tension first appeared in California. Welch and Rawlings didn't agree with some of the decisions Burnett made as he changed their tightly arranged duets into full-band pieces. "The songs that we were most interested in, it was a little hard to make them fit with the band. It was tough sledding," Rawlings says. Although the studio musicians were versatile and sensitive to the needs of the songs, "it was hard for us to find things that suited our vision of it," he says.

While Welch and Rawlings both agreed in their vision for the album, Rawlings was often the one to speak up. This created even more tension, due to the ambiguity surrounding Welch and Rawlings' relationship. Welch was the songwriter. She was the lead singer. Her name and photo would appear on the album cover. Stiff says early on, no one knew where Rawlings fit in the picture: was he Welch's sideman, her collaborator, or just a boyfriend with lots of opinions? "None of us – and I believe I can speak for everybody – was clear on what his role was," she says.

Welch admits Rawlings was "in a very tricky situation, on paper" because of the way her career had developed. "All of these early meetings, all of these early professional interviews, it's just me. I'm doing all this crazy legwork, calling these people, going to meetings. Even though every show they would have ever come out to see me play, it was the two of us, I think that still colored the perception that I was the artist."

The strife came to a head as the record's final mixing session in Los Angeles approached. Almo Records only bought one plane ticket – for Welch. Rawlings stayed in Nashville while she flew to California and finished their record. "I felt caught in the middle," Welch says.

At times, Rawlings wondered if he was doing more harm than good. "It was awful. It was painful," he says. "One of the great successes of the record, from our standpoint, is that we managed to come through it still as a band."

They soldiered through the mixing and mastering sessions until there was only one thing left to do: give the album a name. Welch and Rawlings labored over the title but nothing worked. It came down to the night before they had to call the label with a final answer. "We'd thrown out everything we could think of, and given up," Rawlings says. "We were probably just going to call it 'Gillian Welch,' but we didn't want to."

But a little later, Welch spoke up. She remembered a dream she'd had recently, where she could see a riverside revival church meeting. "We both settled on it immediately," Rawlings says. They called Almo the next morning. The name of Gillian Welch's debut album would be Revival. Now, on November 25th, Welch will release a special addendum to Revival. Titled Boots No. 1: The Official Revival Bootleg, the project features a wealth of previously unreleased material and outtakes.

The original Revival hit stores on April 9th, 1996. In the weeks following its release, the album appeared at the top of the Gavin Report's brand-new "Americana" chart. When Welch and Rawlings headed out on the road to promote Revival, there was money to rent a car, stay in a hotel and pay the bills back home. "We're going out and playing tiny little shows. But it did feel like we were real artists all of a sudden," Rawlings remembers. "It wasn't a bomb. That was amazing."

Then came Rolling Stone's review of Revival, written by critic Ann Powers. It began with a backhanded compliment: "Gillian Welch doesn't play rock music, but the determination with which she has cast herself into a role that by no right belongs to her shows pure rock attitude."

In the remainder of her 232-word review, Powers called out Welch's Hollywood childhood and stint in Boston, lambasting Revival's "museum-careful invocations of bluegrass and old country music" and "handcrafted simulacrum of rural mysticism." While Powers admitted the craft in Welch's songs, she said her "gorgeous testimonies manufacture emotion rather than express it."

Powers was not the only critic to point out the seeming incongruity between the songwriter's raising and her art. The others just came at the issue from a different angle. "Roots are where you find them," wrote Jon Pareles for The New York Times. But the damage was done. Three short paragraphs in a glossy magazine gave birth to questions about authenticity and appropriation that would follow Welch for years. Two decades later, even writers who didn't cotton to Powers' point of view still feel the need to explain those questions away.

Fans weren't nearly as conflicted about Welch's bona fides, however. Soon after the release of Revival, Welch and Rawlings were invited to perform on WSM's Grand Ole Opry. Stiff offered some advice: "I said to them, with this audience, you have to do 'Paper Wings.'"

Welch wrote the song after listening to a Willie Nelson box set, which featured recordings from his early days as a songwriter for pop-country artists like Faron Young and Patsy Cline. "There was a lot of discussion about whether they should do it with a band or not," Stiff says. Welch and Rawlings eventually decided to play country music's most famous stage the same way they played every dive bar and shopping mall since arriving in Music City – with two voices and two guitars.

Stiff watched in the wings as Welch crooned through the first verse and into the chorus.

"Paper wings, paper wings / Oh how could I expect to fly, with only paper wings?"

The room erupted in a standing ovation before Welch could begin the second verse. "It was the most amazing thing," Stiff says. "Everybody in the audience at the Grand Ole Opry got it."