Gillian Welch’s songs are like tiny novels, illuminating complex characters and rich storytelling

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Gillian Welch’s musical storytelling and its literary bent will be recognized at UNC when she receives Thomas Wolfe Prize for Literature. She’s the first musician ever to receive the award.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Gillian Welch’s musical storytelling and its literary bent will be recognized at UNC when she receives Thomas Wolfe Prize for Literature. She’s the first musician ever to receive the award.

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World of Bluegrass 2018

The International Bluegrass Music Association conference, awards ceremony, Bluegrass Ramble and World of Bluegrass is in Raleigh, NC, Sept. 25-29, 2018. Find our stories here.

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Gillian Welch doesn’t write novels, but she knows a thing or two about telling stories.

Her songs often feel like tiny novels, giving us glimpses into complex characters and richly imagined settings.

She’s won Grammy awards and multiple Americana Music Association honors, including a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting for these songs.

And her musical storytelling and its literary bent will be recognized Tuesday, Oct. 2 when she receives the Thomas Wolfe Prize for Literature from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Department of English and Comparative Literature. She’s the first musician ever to receive the award. Previous winners of the prize, named for the UNC alum who wrote “Look Homeward, Angel” and “You Can’t Go Home Again,” have included Pat Conroy, Jill McCorkle, Clyde Edgerton, Sandra Cisneros, Roy Blount Jr. and Ron Rash.

“I’m very moved and profoundly honored that I’m going to be the first musician they’ve ever given this to,” she said in an interview. “It really, really hits home with me. I am trying to tell stories, the kind of stories and the kinds of things that the authors that have inspired me have told.”

As part of the award program, she will give a lecture titled “The Story in Song: Music and Conversation with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.” Tickets for the free event have all been claimed.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at the Filmore Theater. Welch has been announced as a performer for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass in 2018. PAXTONx

Welch said the talk will be “predominately music,” played along with her partner, David Rawlings.

“We’re going to just try to give some insight into our process and writing and why and how we do what we do, and then play,” she said.

Speaking from her home in Nashville, she gets up and takes a look at her bookshelf, listing some of the authors she sees.

There’s Thomas Wolfe (“He’s kind of the great observer,” she said, citing his explorations of “what it is to be the artist, the outsider. I really relate to that.”); James Agee (“His beautiful lyricism – he sometimes feels to me like he’s writing songs without music.”); John Steinbeck (“No one has ever wrapped up stronger than Steinbeck. … He’s the master of the last verse”); and Zora Neale Hurston.

What they all have in common, she said, is they write about “very subtle and yet deeply human themes.”

“I love what goes unsaid,” Welch said. “It’s really important in songs, because the majority of the story has to go untold. You only get to tell a tiny, tiny part of it. You have to refer to the entire first 10 chapters as ‘Go there, go there, you Knoxville girl / with a dark and roving eye.’ That’s all you get to explain what the hell did she do that he murders her.”

Literature also inspires Welch’s songwriting in a physical sense. Her bookshelves are her backdrop when she sits down to write, a painstaking process that takes some time.

“What I end up doing is I think and I think and I think some more, and then I write four words. That’s what I do,” she said. “And that’s the great joke with my partnership with David Rawlings. I sit on the couch and I think for four hours, and I write four words. And then Dave brushes his teeth and writes the other four.”

That works fine for Rawlings, and for their partnership, she said, but her process unfolds more slowly, like the stories in so many of the books she enjoys.

“This is what I do. I sit and I stare at books,” she said with a chuckle. “I make coffee and I stare at closed books.”

Welch and Rawlings have several appearances in the Triangle this week.

Welch will perform as part of a special collaboration at World of Bluegrass. She’s an invited guest of the First Ladies of Bluegrass — Alison Brown, Becky Buller, Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull and Missy Raines. That set, which also features Rhiannon Giddens, brings together the first women to win each of the instrument category awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association.

And after the Thomas Wolfe program, they’ll perform at Saxapahaw’s Haw River Ballroom Oct. 3 and 4. Tickets remain for the Oct. 3 show.

Welch said she’s excited to be part of the First Ladies of Bluegrass set and to see female musicians getting the spotlight. She’s optimistic about where that can lead.

“I love what’s going on right now,” Welch said. “I love all the different women’s voices and stories. I think basically you have to grow up in a world where you feel like you can do anything you want to do. And I was just really lucky that my mom instilled in me so deeply that I could do anything I wanted to do. And I feel like she was a little ahead of her time, you know?

“So now I think we’re seeing … more and more women are growing up feeling like they can do anything they want to do, and I think that’s why we’re getting this beautiful harvest.”



The Special Collaboration is at the Red Hat Amphitheater Friday at 9:30 p.m. with Alison Brown, Becky Buller, Sierra Hull, Missy Raines, Molly Tuttle and guest appearances by Gillian Welch and Rhiannon Giddens. The set is part of the ticketed Wide Open Bluegrass. Shows are Friday and Saturday. Single-day tickets start at $50 for IBMA members, $60 for the general public. Two-day passes start at $80 for IBMA members and $100 for nonmembers. Children 12 and younger free with paying adults (general admission.) worldofbluegrass.org

“The Story in Song: Music and Conversation with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings,” part of the Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture program, is Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m. at UNC’s Hill Hall. All free tickets for the event have been claimed.

Welch and David Rawlings perform Wednesday, Oct. 3, and Thursday, Oct. 4, at 8 p.m. at Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw. Tickets for the Oct. 4 are sold out. A few may still be available for the Oct. 3 show, $35. hawriverballroom.com.

Literary lyrics

Here are a sampling of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ lyrics that read like a novel:

From “Look at Miss Ohio” on the album “Soul Journey” (2003)

Oh me oh my oh

Look at Miss Ohio

She’s a running around with her rag-top down

She says I wanna do right but not right now.

Gonna drive to Atlanta

And live out this fantasy

Running around with the rag-top down

Yeah, I wanna do right but not right now.

From “Red Clay Halo” on the album “Time (The Revelator)” (2001)

All the girls all dance with the boys from the city

And they don’t care to dance with me

Now it ain’t my fault that the fields are muddy

And the red clay stains my feet …

But when I pass through the pearly gate

Will my gown be gold instead?

Or just a red clay robe with red clay wings

And a red clay halo for my head?

From “I Dream a Highway” on the album “Time (The Revelator)” (2001)

Oh I dream a highway back to you, love

A winding ribbon with a band of gold

A silver vision come and rest my soul

I dream a highway back to you.

John he’s kicking out the footlights

The Grand Ole Opry’s got a brand new band

Lord, let me die with a hammer in my hand

I dream a highway back to you.

From “The Way It Goes” on the album “The Harrow & The Harvest” (2011)

Becky Johnson bought the farm

Put a needle in her arm

That’s the way that it goes

That’s the way.

And her brother laid her down

In the cold Kentucky ground

That’s the way that it goes

That’s the way.

That’s the way that it goes

Everybody’s buying little baby clothes

That’s the way that it ends

Though there was a time when she and I were friends.

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