Gillian Welch and the Roots of Flight

The acclaimed folk singer may live on the road, but she and musical partner Dave Rawlings still cherish the chance to come home to Hardly Strictly

Gillian Welch, here with David Rawlings, has been a frequent Hardly Strictly performer. (Photo by Mark Seliger)

Folk singer Gillian Welch was born in New York and got her start in Nashville, but when she returns to San Francisco next month, it will be a homecoming of sorts.

That’s because Welch and her longtime musical partner Dave Rawlings have long been a staple of the Bay Area’s insatiable appetite for sprawling mountain music. Despite the pair’s frequent visits over the years, when they hit the Fillmore on Oct. 6, things will be a little different. That’s because they’re dedicating the first half of the evening to a performance of The Harrow and the Harvest, Welch’s 2011 album that has recently been pressed to vinyl.

“It’s not like we had to go back and learn the tunes,” Welch says of revisiting what is still her most recent release, a Grammy-nominated record full of wistful odes to days of yore and ragged eulogies to lost loves.

Rather, the biggest change seems to be in format. Fans of Welch — and of Rawlings, for that matter — are used to seeing her dig through an expansive catalogue of work that includes five albums under her own name, two with the Dave Rawlings Machine, and, most recently, Poor David’s Almanac, the first record to be released under Rawlings name proper.  

Now, Welch is asking her fans to exchange the currency of surprise at what she and Rawlings play next for the chance to hear a record delivered in full.

“It’s been very interesting to make ourselves depart from our usual setcraft,” she says. “We have a recipe for how we built sets, and with these shows, we’re departing from it to play the album sequence. I don’t think David or I really could’ve told you how much that fact would even affect the second set. It’s kind of intense to play the record, and then, when we’ve been coming back out to play the second set, it’s been almost a little bit of an afterparty feeling.”

Welch, who many fans came to know from her work on the Appalachian-soaked O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, is making the most of her time in the Bay Area by appearing once again at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.

Unlike seemingly every other musical festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass makes a point of bringing back the same talent year after year. Far from growing stale, the ubiquity of  artists like Conor Oberst, Emmylou Harris, or Welch herself feels like a familiar tradition when the free, non-commercial festival announces its lineup each September.

“At this point, it’s a bit like a family reunion,” Welch says. “In fact, sometimes it’s literally a family reunion, because we’ve been doing it long enough that, for instance, Dave’s family will quite often travel from Rhode Island to come to the festival.”

In trying to define what makes Hardly Strictly Bluegrass something she and Rawlings are eager to return and play time and time again, Welch notes that the location — and the history it carries — is one of the largest factors for her.

“To me, that meadow in Golden Gate Park carries some feelings that I imagine were shared by Warren Hellman, who started the festival,” she says. “I don’t remember the free festivals in the Park from the ’60s like he did, but the park does have a musical history and a musical tradition in San Francisco, and in fact in the nation.”

“I think it always meant something to me that this festival was happening in that park,” she adds.

While Welch prepares for the third and final leg of the intimate tour she and Rawlings assembled to celebrate  The Harrow and the Harvest’s vinyl release, she’s also recently had a chance to flex a very different kind of artistic muscle when she created the artwork for Rawlings’ Poor David’s Almanack.

“Basically, we were down to the wire, because with pressing vinyl, all of the manufacturing is so backed up that you have to turn in the album artwork in way way sooner than you used to,” Welch says. “So suddenly, we needed an album cover and a whole album package in about five days. Dave and I talked about it, and we just couldn’t bring ourselves to call any of our artist friends and say, ‘Hey, could you do this? Could you do it in like three days?’ I just couldn’t make the call, and Dave said, ‘Well, you could do it.’ ”

The finished product, which Welch executed in her kitchen with sumi ink and brush, shares a striking resemblance to the aesthetic of Japanese woodcutting. Featuring the silhouetted figures of farmers, birds, and mystical beasts, it seems a fitting companion to the album, which consists  of American roots music about smooching primates and a lass captured by the devil.

They will now take their place among the quiet ballads and fiddle jaunts that Welch and Rawlings have been refining since 1996’s Revival first greeted the world. Perhaps fans will get a chance to hear some cuts off the record when the two take their familiar spot on the stage amid a meadow.

Regardless of what they play, Hardly Strictly creates an atmosphere unlike any other.

“Constantly moving is a bit of a rootless lifestyle,” Welch says. “You’re never home very long, and so I always really enjoy that I get to see so many of my friends at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. That festival really is like a birthday.”

Gillian Welch plays Friday, Oct 6, at 8 p.m. at The Fillmore. $37.50; thefillmore.com. Also appearing on Saturday, Oct. 7 at Hellman Hollow. Free; hardlystrictlybluegrass.com.

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