Let’s begin with the basic facts: Gillian Welch is a person, but she is also a founding member of a two-person band called “Gillian Welch”, along with her partner Dave Rawlings. The duo just released a set of demos from their debut album, Revival, to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The 21-track album includes alternate versions of all ten cuts from the original record, eight previously unreleased songs, and a few miscellaneous tunes from the past. Twenty years ago, several critics lambasted Gillian Welch because they did not come from the rural roots from which their acoustic stringed music emerged. These city/suburban kids sounded like hicks and Okies—a case of cultural appropriation. As time has passed, the act found its unique voice rooted in this sensibility and the controversy has died down. Thus, the release of these bootleg recordings serves as an excellent opportunity to reassess the quality of the work and acknowledge what was clear from the very beginning: that Gillian Welch sings superbly and plays original music in traditional styles.
Authenticity is overrated. The twosome Gillian Welch are not musical rubes any more than Bruce Springsteen is a factory laborer or (your favorite artist here) is a (your favorite identifier here). That’s the nature of art. Gillian Welch weren’t trying to provide an Alan Lomax-style documentary tribute to past styles; instead, they invented their own based on what they liked. After all, nothing comes from nothing; all music has roots, and to say that one should only create works that reflect one’s actual heritage is appalling. However, this criticism is really a left-handed complement. Gillian Welch were suspect because they sounded so genuine.
The other versions of Revival songs on Boots No. 1 reveal the two musicians greatly experimented with the compositions. The songs did not come out fully formed, but the duo sophisticatedly played with structure and harmony. In all ten cases, the original record contains the better versions, yet this is perfectly acceptable, as old fans will still enjoy making comparisons and evaluating the changes. (We live in a world where many people have purchased 36-CD sets of Bob Dylan’s live shows that barely change over the months just so they can hear the subtle evolutions of their favorite tracks.) That said, new listeners may be better off getting a copy of the original disc.
However, there are those other intriguing tracks, including “Dry Town”, a song covered previously recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Miranda Lambert, but not Gillian Welch. It was written after the band toured with Johnny Cash and bears the mark of Cash’s serious but goofball approach to music. There’s also the rocking “455 Rocket”, complete with electric guitar and the lonesome blues of “Georgia Road” that lets Rawlings fingerpick while Welch uses the husky side of her voice to sound sultry. It’s a really nice mix of styles.
After 20 years, Gillian Welch has changed from being a musical pioneer in the Americana field to being one if its most recognized standard bearers. The pair set the bar high for future performers through the excellence of their singing, playing, and songwriting. This record is where it all began before they (with the help of producer T Bone Burnett) put out their first disc. In other words, Gillian Welch fans will appreciate hearing the original sounds of the band.