Starting out 30-odd years ago in no less an all-American town than Hollywood, Calif., where selves are invented and dreams made real, Gillian Welch grew up the daughter of a professional minstrel who scored sounds for The Carol Burnett Show. No brain-dead SoCal babe, Ms. Welch picked up the six-string at 8 years old and soon was singing Woody Guthrie tunes in elementary school. A decade later, during a spell at UC Santa Cruz, she found the bluegrass of the Stanley Brothers more to her liking, then ventured eastward to attend Boston's highfalutin Berklee College of Music.
As fate would have it, there she met her songwriting partner, David Rawlings. Their mutual love of old folk, blues, and country musics led them to Nashville just as the Americana (or altcountry) movement was growing up around the nation. In the home of the Grand Ole Opry, Gillian Welch's star began to rise, aided by the interest of celebrity fans like Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley. Numerous awards, a publishing deal, and then a record contract followed.
Revival, Welch's debut CD, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album, but that much-lauded disc pales against the haunting brilliance of last year's Hell Among the Yearlings. A stark, down-and-out darkness casts its pall over simple acoustic numbers like “My Morphine,” “Whiskey Girl,” “Good Til Now,” and “Caleb Meyer,” a chilling backwoods narrative of attempted rape, murder, and ghostly “rattling chains.” But despite the depth of feeling in her down-home sound, many big-city crits still say an L.A. girl has no legitimate claim to the Appalachian blues. The clever Ms. Welch counters with “The Devil Had a Hold of Me,” suggesting a mystical union in the long line of legendary ne'er-do-wells like bluesman Robert Johnson. The ballad of Gillian Welch: a bold reinvention of self worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster.