When Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings tour, they don't travel by tour bus or plane. Instead, they go by Cadillac. It's a mode of transportation that has a long history in country music. "Many before us have realized that this is the best way to roll down the road," Welch says. "It's a tried-and-true thing. Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, the Band, Flatt and Scruggs — everybody used to drive a Cadillac."
More than its illustrious history, however, a car is much more efficient for a duo who play acoustic instruments almost exclusively. It's greener than a tour bus. "Plus, Dave's allergic to diesel, so there's that," Welch says. Perhaps even more importantly, Cadillacs are comfortable and quiet. "They save your ears," she explains. "The amount we drive, you have to have a quiet car or you get to the gig and your ears are all road rumbled."
Welch and Rawlings started touring by Caddy a few years ago, often taking circuitous routes between shows, the better to see even more of the country. The duo prefer back roads through small towns over big interstates through bigger cities, which often puts them in close proximity to the primary subject of their austere country songs: America past and present.
"That's really how we wrote this new record," Welch says of the fourth album with her name on the spine, The Harrow and the Harvest. (Welch and Rawlings write and perform together, but typically only one of them gets artist credit.) "We crisscrossed the country I think eight times."
What they saw was a lot of unhappy people struggling to get by in the current economic crisis. "I'm here to tell you that I've seen tens of thousands of miles of this country, and it was really something to behold," Welch says. "I saw stuff that I've only seen in WPA photographs. People were having a rough time. I'm glad I saw it, though. I'm glad I was in touch with it. Dave put it beautifully — he said he felt a sort of gathering weight."
The country's bleak mood inspired the austere acoustic sound of The Harrow and the Harvest, which is her first album in nearly a decade. But it also inspired the songs' subject matter: hard-luck tales of regular Americans at loose ends, forced into dire circumstances such as drug addiction, prostitution, or simple, abject hopelessness.
Welch and Rawlings are not singles artists; in fact, Welch explains they sent Harrow out to radio stations with no highlighted tracks and different stations chose different songs. But one song has stood out to them, the bluntly titled "Hard Times." Illustrated by Rawlings' spidery guitar licks and Welch's grave vocals, it's a typical Welch/Rawlings composition in that it's written in character — specifically that of an old farmer working the ground with his beloved mule. "Hard Times" has become a fan favorite off The Harrow and the Harvest, perhaps thanks to its determined chorus: "Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind."
"By coincidence or whatever," Welch says, "it really resonated with what a lot of people were going through economically, so I'm happy to say that those sorts of accidents happen. And they're probably not accidents at all."
Touring by car may have put Welch in touch with America in the 21st century, but her and Rawlings' music is still rooted in the sepia-tone tinge of Depression-era folk music. Especially after the full-band, electric sound of 2003's Soul Journey, the stark, stripped-down acoustic sound of The Harrow and the Harvest evokes Appalachian folk and Dust Bowl desperation without making the parallels between the Great Recession and the Great Depression too obvious. It's timely but not necessarily political, topical but without the hokey self-seriousness of OWS folkies like Tom Morello and Bruce Springsteen.
"Every song Dave and I write has to have something in it that we think could make it somebody's favorite song," Welch says. "If it's going to be depressing, make it so depressing that if a person loves depressing songs, it's their favorite song. If it's going to be silly, make it so silly that if a person really likes light, wry, witty songs, it's their favorite song."
The Harrow and the Harvest has many more depressing songs than silly songs, which is not to say that the album is a complete downer. Welch's narrators are never truly hopeless, if for no other reason than she imbues them with great wit and wily grit — the necessary tools not only to tell their own stories but to survive in a country that has always been hard.
For Welch, though, traveling by car has not only given new resonance to her old subjects but has given her a new way to document the times she lives in with all their complexity intact. She sees the goodness as well as the heaviness: "If you're feeling depressed or things are getting out of control, you can get in your car and drive around and see how much goodness is still out there. It's not all messed up. People sometimes just bury their heads in the daily news and lose hope. To those people I would say, take a trip. Go see for yourself. Decide for yourself how it's going."
An Evening with Gillian Welch
Germantown Performing Arts Centre
Tuesday, June 12th
8 p.m.; $32.50