Gillian Welch and David Rawlings aren’t known for being especially prolific. I’ve always imagined that their rural American music, with its deceptively simple song structures and transcendental, timeless feel, takes time to perfect. And the precious few albums that have emerged in the past decade or so have indeed been perfect.
That’s why the bounty of Welch/Rawlings releases in 2020 has been such a welcome surprise. With their lives upturned more than most – first by a tornado that hit East Nashville back in March and didn’t spare their recording space, then by the pandemic – the couple initially responded with a covers album, All The Good Times Are Gone, recorded on their couch. But the tornado scared them into releasing some of the old material they’d come so close to losing, and over the autumn they treated us to three volumes of Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs.
Whereas Boots No. 1 was essentially the ‘making of’ Welch’s 1996 debut Revival, with lots of fascinating demo and alternate versions, most of the 48 songs that make up Boots No. 2 haven’t been heard at all before. They date back to a long weekend’s songwriting flurry around 2002, after which they were largely forgotten. A couple (One Little Song and Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor) turned up in different forms on Soul Journey. The Dylanesque Picasso has featured regularly in Welch’s live shows over the years. Solomon Burke cut Valley of Tears. And Changing Ground will be remembered by anyone who watched the 2012-2018 country music soap opera Nashville (I did, until the bitter end).
But the majority are new to us, and unlike so many other artists’ vault-clearing exercises, the quality is impeccable. There’s not a single track here that feels throwaway, that you wouldn’t want to return to – even the joke songs have hidden depths. And nothing’s been overthought, because clearly there wasn’t time. The duo’s instinct for precisely when to leave a song alone is too good, anyway.
The songs that stick with me are the concise character studies, a rich seam for Welch as far back as Orphan Girl. It’s astonishing how, in a couple of short verses, she can conjure a believable person with hopes and fears that feel real. She does more on a single lyric sheet than some novels manage in 900 pages. There’s the eccentric Strange Isabella who perplexes everyone with her unseasonal clothing and untied shoes. We meet three lost souls walking the harsh Streets of St. Paul. The protagonist of Rambling Blade is a murderer reflecting on their sinful life and their few virtues as they prepare for the gallows. With haunting lines like ‘Wear my scars/white as lace’, Johnny Cash would have covered it in a heartbeat, and Nick Cave would kill to have written it. Or perhaps I’ve got that the wrong way round.
There’s also a gospel strand – the Bible gets the equivalent of rave Goodreads review in Mighty Good Book (‘Have you ever read it for yourself?’) and You Only Have Your Soul warns of the devil’s temptations, or perhaps the trappings of fame (‘Be careful what you sign on the line’). There’s more supreme country-soul in the likes of Roll On, yet another ready-made standard. And they let their hair down on stuff like the near-gibberish rockabilly come-on Wella Hella and the party-starting Back Turn And Swing.
You’ll have your own favourites as you delve into this stuff, but Boots No. 2 has been hands-down my musical highlight of 2020. So thanks, Gill and Dave, for dusting off your lost songs and sharing them – they’re the gift that keeps giving.
Things that helped is my series of posts about the stuff that kept me going in 2020.
For a lot more insight into this amazing duo, I recommend Hanif Abdurraqib’s recent New York Times piece: How Gillian Welch and David Rawlings Held Onto Optimism.