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Gillian Welch

David Rawlings (guitar/vocals), Gillian Welch (vocals/guitar/banjo)

Based In:
Nashville, TN



The Harrow & the Harvest

Release Date:
June 28, 2011


Previous Releases:
Revival (1996), Hell Among the Yearlings (1998), Time (The Revelator) 2001, Soul Journey (2003)

Americana, folk, country, bluegrass

Gillian Welch, The Harrow & the Harvest album cover

Rating: 10 out of 10



June 28, 2011


July 2011 Featured Review

Gillian Welch: The Harrow & the Harvest

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


I’ll cut to the chase. Gillian Welch’s The Hallow and the Harvest is spectacular. Amazing. Epiphanic. Sublime. Transformational. Gorgeous. There does not exist a sufficient variety of superlatives to apply.

Not only is it the best album of the year, but it stands among the true giants. It’s as musically and emotionally compelling as Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. It’s as perfect in its simplicity as Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs. It’s as lyrically penetrating as Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. In short, it’s great. Check that. It’s a great.

But rather than telling you to quit reading and buy it this moment, I’ll beg your indulgence while I discuss why this is so. As Lewis Carroll said, “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop,” so we will begin with definitions (courtesy

Gillian Welch, whose new album The Harrow & the Harvest has been a long time comin'. Photo by John Chiasson.

har·row (1)
1. an agricultural implement with spikelike teeth or upright disks, drawn chiefly over plowed land to level it, break up clods, root up weeds, etc.
–verb (used with object)
2. to draw a harrow over (land).
3. to disturb keenly or painfully; distress the mind, feelings, etc., of.
–verb (used without object)
4. to become broken up by harrowing,  as soil.
har·row (2)
–verb (used with object) Archaic .
1. to ravish; violate; despoil.
2. harry.
3. (of Christ) to descend into (hell) to free the righteous held captive.
1. Also, har·vest·ing. the gathering of crops.
2. the season when ripened crops are gathered.
3. a crop or yield of one growing season.
4. a supply of anything gathered at maturity and stored: a harvest of wheat.
5. the result or consequence of any act, process, or event: The journey yielded a harvest of wonderful memories.
–verb (used with object)
6. to gather (a crop or the like); reap.
7. to gather the crop from: to harvest the fields.
8. to gain, win, acquire, or use (a prize, product, or result of any past act, process, plan, etc.).
9. to catch, take, or remove for use.

This may seem excessive, but it’s important because an appreciation of The Harrow and the Harvest must begin with its name.

It has been almost a decade since Gillian Welch has released a record. Her last album, Soul Journey, came out in 2003. Since then—despite all of her acclaim and her standing as one of the most respected and influential musicians of her generation—Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings experienced an absolutely epic dry spell. They tried writing and they even tried recording several times, but to no avail. Nothing worked. It was as if the creative spigot had just closed.

Then the duo worked on the Dave Rawlings Machine album A Friend of a Friend together and that kickstarted the system. Things began to click again. And somehow, after such a long drought, the torrent that followed produced a collection of songs deeper and more personal than anything they had ever produced before.

Thus the name of the project. On the face of it, the applicable definitions are probably “harrow” (1) 1. and “harvest” 3., implying that the long fallow period was the churning of the ground that produced a bountiful return. But when you dig deeper, this agricultural denotation becomes a Delphic metaphor. “To disturb keenly or painfully; distress the mind, feelings, etc., of.” Surely the experience of your talents suddenly and inexplicably failing must be disturbing and painful, and certainly the stories contained on the album contain many harrowed characters.

But take the leap and look at the other, archaic root of the word. “To ravish; violate; despoil.” Yep that’s there. And “(of Christ) to descend into (hell) to free the righteous held captive.” Not to suggest that Gillian is a messiah figure, but she certainly does this with the characters in her songs. And considering the musical perdition we all live in—where the radio is filled with shit-slinging devils such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Black Eyed Peas, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and the like—we could certainly use a sign from the divine. The Harrow and the Harvest is as close as we’re gonna come, and that’s just fine by me. I have said in the past that I hate applying the word “revelation” to music, but if it is proper to do so, then this is the time.

The first seal is broken with the opening notes of “Scarlet Town,” one of the best tracks on an album full of standouts. It has a great old folk feel, but with a power unlike anything the classic masters accomplished with such sparse instrumentation. It features a strummed guitar rhythm and a lead line that jumps nimbly from string to string. The picking is light as it dances, while Welch’s voice is deep and flowing. Rawlings weaves his own singing into the choruses to perfectly match her tone. The song tells of a woman enduring a failing relationship and a hellish stay in the aforementioned sanguine city. The lyrics are absolutely top notch, the perfect balance of vividly descriptive and hazily shrouded. The tale unravels through metaphorical flashes rather than plot, with lines like:

On the day I came to Scarlet Town you promised I’d be your bride
But you left me here to rot away like holly on the mountainside.

I look at that deep well.
Look at that dark rain.
Ringin’ that iron bell
In Scarlet Town today.

“Dark Turn of Mind” takes a turn for the bluesy, perhaps even jazzy. With no real rhythm part, it relies on just two guitars moving their way along. It is slow and dim, treading lightly through its melancholic lyrics.

“The Way It Will Be” is characterized by the duo’s intertwined voices, both of which are absolutely beautiful. It again has a bluesy feel and focuses on a woman choosing between two lovers. A drought-era success, it has been heard in live performances for a number of years.

“The Way It Goes” is another highlight. It has everything: drugs, death, love, breakups, and the hint of both murder and tawdry sex. The music has a picked-up pace and a more traditional bluegrass feel than those that precede it and seems to be loosely based on the classic spiritual “Gospel Plow,” a particularly appropriate choice for an album with an agricultural appellation. The guitar work is spectacular, especially during the vocal breaks when the picked notes rise and fall and do all manner of acrobatics. The lyrics are once again absolutely perfect, each verse painting a portrait through pithy lines such as:

Gillian with musical partner David Rawlings. Funny, He seems to be dressed fancier than she is. Photo by Paxton X.

So the brightest ones of all
Early in October fall.
That’s the way that it goes.
That’s the way.

While the dark ones go to bed
With good whiskey in their heads.
That’s the way that it goes.
That’s the way.”

Following on its heels is “Tennessee,” the best-written composition in a superbly crafted collection. It recounts the tale of a fallen woman from her first moments of temptation, though the long slide of a life longing for a return to purity, and on to her foreseen end and hoped-for redemption. It is slow and sad, humble and humbling, bitter and sweet, all in equal proportions. It is impossible to describe how perfectly crafted the words are, with language that evokes faded but salient memories—nostalgia in the true, aching form of its Greek root:

Now I try drinkin’ rye and gamblin’.
Dancin’ with damnation is a ball.
But of all the little ways I find to hurt myself
You might be my favorite one of all.

Lines such as these seem to wrap up the full range of human emotion within the confines of just a few syllables.

Most train songs are fast, pounding along like the thum-thum-thum of wheels along the rails, but “Down Along the Dixie Line” comes as if out of a dreamy memory, foggy and wistful. It starts with a long, sweet, simple guitar line and is sung in tandem, with Rawlings’ voice fusing so perfectly with Welch’s that it’s virtually impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Again nostalgia is a key component as the song mixes childhood memories of the South with a wish to return to a life and home long past. At the same time, there are memories of longing to leave that past behind, as the song closes with the words:

David and Gillian, just taking your average everyday stroll through the mud wearing a suit and a dress and carrying guitars. Photo by Mark Seliger.

Can’t you hear those drivers wail?
Can’t you see those bright rails shine?
Gonna catch that Fireball Mail
Leaving north and far behind,
Down along the Dixie Line.”

The animals that lend their name to “Six White Horses” have long been a symbol of death, but far from a processional feel, this song has a country hoedown vibe, with harmonica and banjo opening up the proceedings, along with a body-beat a capella percussion part that recreates cantering hooves. It also features a wheel of life theme metaphorically tied to the turning of the carriage spokes and the two funerary scenes that bookend the piece. It even provides the metatextual glory of hearing Welch repeat note-by-note “Some bright morning” as if taken directly from her version of “I’ll Fly Away” with Alison Krauss, the line that launched a million bluegrass fans.

“Hard Times” is the picture of a working man and his mule trying to make it over life’s rough road. It sounds like a worn-through dustbowl tale, but it is made compelling through the storytelling. For instance, talking to his companion, the man:

Said it’s a mean old world,
Heavy and mean.
That big machine is just a pickin’ up speed.
Yeah we’re suppin’ on tears
And we’re suppin’ on wine.
We all get to heaven in our own sweet time.

Backed up by just banjo through much of the song, Welch’s singing cuts through beautifully, making this hard-bitten song surprisingly delicate. As the tune progresses it adds layers—first a guitar, then Rawlings mellow voice. By the end, the blend is near perfection.

“Silver Dagger” has the feel of an early Dylan song, with lightly fingered guitar, harmonica, long pauses between phrases, and, of course, gorgeous high-concept lyrics:

Somebody’s callin’, tryin’ to track me down.
If I don’t answer I’d hang around.
I slide past lovers lost in the dark.
I look for high ground for to build an ark.

I can’t remember when I felt so free.
Maybe September, the year you believed in me,
In nineteen hundred and ninety nine
When I found the angels a’drinkin’ wine.

Finally, and appropriately enough, comes “The Way the Whole Thing Ends.” With husky vocals and minor-key guitar, it is a different sound, but still relaxed and just a little otherworldly. Like many of the songs on the album, it focuses on torn relationships, but unlike most, the cleavage is not caused by the narrator. Instead, the song is something like a series of indictments, outlining the other person’s flaws and explaining why she is now turning her back. A typical cycle reads:

Now this is a picture worthy of this album--beautiful and expansive, yet intricately detailed. Photo by Mark Seliger.

Now someone said somethin’ one time,
But daddy didn’t talk too loud.
People oughta stick together.
That’s the way to make a crowd.

But here ya come alone and crying.
Now you wanna be my friend.
That’s the way the cornbread crumbles.
That’s the way the whole thing ends.

It concludes with a long instrumental section, as if leaving the whole thing up in the air.

The long wait for The Hallow and the Harvest was undoubtedly worth it. There is not a single song on the album that fails to rate as very good, and a number that are simply great. It would be hard to find an album that is more consistently engaging or as artfully crafted. With little more than four hands, two sets of vocal chords, and a pair of perfectly attuned brains, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have managed to produce a work of exquisite beauty, deep emotional resonance, and profound meaning. The sound is familiar, yet contains twists that make each song compelling in its own way. The lyrics are moving and breviloquent, packing their power into as compact a space as possible. To reiterate, The Hallow and the Harvest is a great album.

Ok, I'm done. Buy it now.


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