Tied to Poetry: Gillian Welch on All The Good Times, Lost Songs & New Material

Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings nearly lost it all. In March of this year, tornados cut a swath of devastation through 100 miles of Tennessee, roaring through Nashville and wrecking the award-winning duo’s musical home at Woodland Studios. With the building’s storied pedigree, the destruction would have been bad enough (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, The Staple Singers, Link Wray, Merle Haggard, and many, many more have recorded there over the decades), but Woodland was also the repository of Welch and Rawlings’s archive of master tapes– all of them. Of course, the universe wasn’t finished. The country was only beginning to earn an understanding of the novel coronavirus, and soon, Gillian and Dave found themselves under quarantine in a powerless Music City. Wrestling with the loss of their studio amid the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic, Welch and Rawlings did the only thing that made sense– they started singing.  All The Good Times, a collection of some of the duo’s favorite songs (including a cover of “Hello In There” that brought this commentator near to tears), was released in July and quickly followed by Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1. Assembled from the thankfully recovered Woodland archives, Lost Songs features 48 original tracks recorded during one weekend in 2002. The second volume arrived on September 18th with a third and final installment due in the coming months.

AI- What’s the physical status of a Woodland Studios? Do you have any updates?

GW- Well, the demolition part of the project is done. We had to do quite a lot of tear-out. I don’t know if you know the basics of what happened to us, but basically, the March tornado peeled our roof off and dumped it onto Woodland Street in front of us. And then we got about four hours of torrential rain! So you can imagine! We had a bunch of ceiling collapse and took a lot of water into the facility. The short form is truly, miraculously, we managed to save just about everything. The building took a big, big hit, but we saved our masters and our guitars and our microphones. Everything got wet, nothing liked it, but we averted a complete catastrophe!

The big focus has been on those masters. I didn’t realize that your instruments had been in danger as well.

Oh yeah! We were fully set up in both studios. It’s a really big old place! All the mics, all of what we call our main recording rig was set up in [Studio] A and all the guitars were out for recording. And then in the B room, that’s where our lathe is set up, and we’d been remastering our previous records for vinyl release. So (laughs) there were masters out all over there! Our masters live in the building anyway. There’s a tape vault in the building. Yeah, it was truly a mad scramble! I’m gonna stay light and conversational about it, but it’s nothing I would ever, ever want to go through again. It was truly horrific.

You guess that I could imagine? I actually can’t! I cannot imagine what you must have been goin’ through mentally and then physically trying to get through and get all of that together in the aftermath. But am I to understand that you were actually in the process of recording at the time?

We had been recording! We have a tried and true mic set up for when David and I play as a duet. Many times, we’ll just leave it set up in the room, so I’m not sure that we had changed the mic set up since we did that song [“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings”] for the last Coen Brothers movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs [2018]. We had set up the duet rig for that recording and it was still there and we’d done some demos… Honestly, I can’t now remember what all we had done. It’s kind of like March and April, they just hit this monster reset button in my brain. I’m sure it’s like that for a lot of people. And I almost can’t remember what the heck I was doin’ before the tornado and the pandemic!

When did you know that you wanted to release these 48 tracks? The Lost Songs collection?

I don’t know exactly how to answer that. Over the years, we had thought of them a couple times. As you may know, a few people had cut songs from the 48. Alison Krauss had cut one [“Wouldn’t Be So Bad”] and Solomon Burke had cut one [“Valley of Tears”] and I’m With Her had cut one [“Hundred Miles”]… Once a decade or so (laughs), we would think about them! But within a week of the tornado, honestly, after rescuing all the masters and everything that we saved, I think my brain naturally turned to this question of, “Well, we saved all this stuff. What did we save it for?” I could literally see them sitting right there in a heap with all of our wet tape boxes. There’s nothing like a bunch of wet cardboard to shake you up and make you take stock of your personal archive.

You know what it was? It was a little bit of like smoke ’em if you got ’em! Really! I think Dave and I just looked at each other and thought, “If we were ever going to do this, I guess now is the time.” We’ve been quite aware for a while that as artists, we have under released. For the years that we’ve been doing this, we should have put more music out into the world. We’ve played a decent number of shows. We’ve probably done a little more touring than we should have– if there is such a great scale somewhere weighing what you do. So I think it was just our attempt to even the scales a little and say, “We need to release more recorded music– and we happen to have all these recordings!”

I find it interesting that you say that– that you have not put out as much as maybe you could or should have. I mean, that’s a quantity thing. As far as quality goes, when it comes to Gillian Welch albums and it comes to Dave Rawlings or Dave Rawlings Machine albums, the sheer quality alone I think, has been enough to really sustain people in the long run. And now, with this brand new wave– you’ve released two volumes already, you’ve got a third coming by the end of the year, along with this massive box set… You said that you had your microphones set up to record demos and whatnot– and knowing that you had, in the last couple of years, been writing– all that leads me to believe that you’ve got something else bigger coming.

Yeah, I hope so (laughs)! Look, when I write, I use side spiral-bound college-ruled notebooks and a pencil. When we got off the road at the end of our last touring thing, instead of buying like a hundred-page notebook, like I usually do, I bought a 200-page notebook– and it’s just about full! So there has been a lot of writing. I think that everything that’s happened to us and to the world this year, it’s going to change what we put out. I think it’s gonna change it for the better. I like to think that we usually do good work when we get to return to something and look at it again, you know?

I guess what I’m trying to say is, yeah, there are quite a few songs kickin’ around. Probably an album’s worth, and we’ve just been trying to deal with the mayhem of this whole year before we dive into a new project. Just for our own sanity. We were trying to get the building– and by the building, I mean our studio– secure. We’re still under a temporary roof. We’re not under a permanent roof yet. We’re just tryin’ to button up these last few things and get all these records out that we decided to just spontaneously release this year. The All The Good Times record from our living room…

I want to talk about that one…

Yeah! I’m due for a shipment of two pallets of LPs here in the next hour (laughs)!

I was gonna ask about that– what were the physical options gonna be for that one outside of the digital release? A very raw and immediate approach, and as I understand it, that was your initial response to being home, to being quarantined during the pandemic. To just sit down and turn the tape recorder on and play these songs that you and Dave love.

Yeah, that’s pretty much it. We didn’t really know what to do. Our studio was in shambles and we couldn’t record there and we didn’t hardly leave the house really. Neither of us were in strict quarantine, it’s just that the whole town was kind of in lockdown. I think I’ve sort of blocked it out already, but where we live, our little neighborhood here was hit so hard by the tornado. It was just like walking through a war zone for months– no street power and people moved away and whole blocks deserted. It was really bad. There were months went by where after dark, the only lights we’d see were the blue police lights. We just holed up in the house and played folk music.

Is that something that you generally do? Was the tape always on? Because I have to tell you that the idea or rather the image of you and Dave just playin’ songs and being together, just because, that might be one of the most comforting things I’ve considered all year long. And it’s very clear that you still impress each other.

That’s really sweet! Yeah, we do like to just sit and play music and it’s been really interesting. We realized that it’s been maybe two decades since we’ve played this much music off a stage or not in a recording studio. Of course, when we were coming up in the early to mid-90s here in Nashville, it’s exactly what we used to do. We used to just sit in the living room and work on songs and just play and sing together and figure out what sounds we like to make. Nobody can tell you what sounds you should make. You have to find them yourself. And while all the playing on stages over the years has been extraordinary and you learn things playing on stage, there is something different about just sitting in a room and playing.

It’s been really wonderful to get back in touch with that. And while we were doing that– again, as a lifeline for ourselves, because we couldn’t think of what else to do, there was nothing else to do and it just seemed like the best thing to do– it sounded different to us. We recognized that it was more immediate, somehow more organic, and almost more human (laughs) than playing into a microphone and playing on the stage. That’s what prompted Dave to walk over to the studio and dig through the piles and find some blank, reel-to-reel tape, and come back and put it up on the machine at the house. That’s how that record really came into being.

So you are chronicling this part of your life? Of this time in American history? I was talking to Zach Aaron, a Texas songwriter, and he said the biggest challenge in being a folk singer right now is trying to break down all the information and find the actual truth. Is that something that you’re doing right now? Is it something that’s gonna take time?

I move rather slowly with processing ideas and thoughts. It’s a little bit like a groundwater reservoir. It seems to have to trickle all the way down with me before I can. And you know why? It’s because my thoughts are tied to poetry. I don’t seem to really understand things until I can marry them to poetic language. It’s one of the reasons I am a writer. Because that’s actually how I think. If you ask me about something before I process it in a poetic sense, I won’t really know what I think about something. So all that to say, this has been such a tumultuous time. Like so many writers I know, we’ve just been grappling with trying to process it. Through April and May, I just kept checkin’ in with some of my most beloved writer friends– and they would check in with me! And we’d say, “Hey, how you doin’? You okay? Yeah? You writing?” Like, “Not a chance!” (Laughs) It was too much! It’s just overwhelming, you know? I would say, yeah, very, very quiet from the brightest minds I know. Very quiet. But I do feel like we’re coming into a new phase, don’t you?

I do. I’m not sure it’s a good phase, but I think we’re entering a new one.

Right. Well, good or bad, that’s a judgment, but I mean, I do feel like there’s a shift happening and whatever we were all going through the first part of the year, we’re now heading into a different chapter. I feel it in my work. I’m just starting to feel the impulse to grab a piece of paper and a pencil. I’m sure plenty of writers have beat me to it. I’m sure lots of people are finding their words already, but like I said, I tend to be a little slower than some.

Reflecting back on these 48 tracks that are being released, and possibly rediscovering some of the songs and the circumstances in which you recorded them almost two decades ago… What do you wish that you had known then?

(Laughs) What do I wish I had known? There’s a funny trait that seems to run through all these 48 songs, which is, I was so focused on making them songs. I was trying to fulfill a contractual publishing deal. I wasn’t trying to shirk it, I wasn’t trying to give them rubbish, but they just had to be songs and I had to turn them in. There’s a beautiful kind of focus on the job at hand with that. I was focused on the craft. I was just really focused on what is a song. When do you know you’re done? When can I call it a song? I certainly had taken myself out of the equation. There was no expectation of, “Do I want to sing this on stage? Would this be good on my next record?” All that was gone, and it’s funny what it did to the group of songs. They’re very straightforward and very unassuming. I wish I had known then that it was a decent way to write and I should’ve just kept going. If that was a long weekend’s work, I really just should’ve kept goin’!

Available now from Acony Records! Gillian Welch & David Rawlings All The Good Times and Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1 & 2! Pre-order the Gillian Welch Boots No.2: The Lost Songs boxset today!