Issue #27: Time (The Revelator) by Gillian Welch
August 1, 2016
Released On July 31, 2001
Released By Acony Records
In the days leading up to the publication of this week’s newsletter, I was feeling so much pressure to make my piece a showstopper. Friends and strangers found me on Twitter and told me how excited they were to read about Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator). Truthfully, I am only vaguely aware of its status as a cult favorite, because my relationship with it started under very weird circumstances.
I don’t remember much of where I was when this gem of a record came into my life. I probably read a review in Entertainment Weekly, of which my parents have been loyal subscribers since 1992. I don’t know how I felt when I first heard “Elvis Presley Blues.” I don’t remember buying the record or listening to it all the way through for the first time. I was 22 in 2001 and kind of a mess. My hobbies included drinking too much Yuengling, buying too many records, and having a painful, unrequited crush on my roommate. I am still shocked Time (The Revelator) cut through all my 20-something bullshit and became one of my most cherished albums ever.
My favorite song has always been “April The 14th Part I,” which frames the story of a terrible local show (“was a five band bill /two dollar show… and the girl passed out / in the back seat, trashed / there was no way they’d make / even half a tank of gas”) with other tragedies that happened the same day, April 14th. Besides the sinking of the Titanic, April 14th (she calls it Ruination Day) has also seen the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the worst storm during the Dust Bowl (“and the Okies fled”). I interpreted Welch as saying everything can be a tragedy if you feel it is, which seemed so powerful to an anxiety-riddled 22 year old.
If you told me the last song was a fifteen-minute-long ballad that Welch and musical partner David Rawlings had never played before recording, I would skip it every time. But “I Dream A Highway” does not feel like it’s fifteen minutes, which is probably the highest compliment I could ever pay a song. It numbs you with its beauty and makes you lose track of time.
There are so many reoccurring motifs — death, the color red, the phrase “staggers and jags,” ruination day — that the album feels like one complete piece of music, one statement on life. As great as each individual song is, this record needs to be listened from beginning to end.
Time (The Revelator) ranked on many end of year lists in 2001 (not Pitchfork’s, as it was reviewed six months after its initial release), and was even included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, solidifying its importance as a country-folk classic. Despite all of this and its cult status, Welch never received the level of attention she deserved within indie circles — she should at least be Neko Case famous. I picked this album so its reverence can grow ever so slightly, even if it’s just among my colleagues from Off Your Radar.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
Unassumingly vibrant. Prismatically familiar.
What is it that makes this album such a classic? I’ve had it on my Amazon wishlist for a long time, ever since it appeared in the top ten of Paste Magazine‘s Best of 2000-2009 list, but until this week, I’d never heard a note. (That’s not entirely true. I head “Elvis Presley Blues” on an episode of Contrast Podcast, but I didn’t realize it was on this album.) My first impression was that it was a very calming album, but I could also imagine these songs with electric/distorted guitars rocking really, really hard. I suppose that’s what makes them good songs. I can imagine them in all sorts of genres still having the same entrancing quality. But this genre works best with Ms. Welch’s voice, I think. And some of the images (see “Red Clay Halo“) would feel out of place in, say, a reggae version. I think the song would still be good, but it would feel like, “Shouldn’t that probably not be a reggae song?” (Although now that I’m saying that, I feel like maybe it might also work surprisingly well. Someone get the Easy Star All-Stars on the phone. I need them to try something for me.) That song in particular, and all the songs in general, feels like it’s been around since the Dust Bowl and Welch has compiled covers of them into an album. Various contemporary references (Steve Miller Band’s “Quicksilver Girl” springs to mind from “My First Lover“) make this a short-lived hypothesis, but in a way that’s what really does it for me. You know she’s singing from the recent past, but it feels timeless. It instills in me the feeling that things we do now could very well be eternal. And I think that’s a scary, but ultimately inspiring thought. Time really is the Revelator.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Listening to Gillian Welch this week reminded me of Bo Burnham’s country song in his latest excellent Netflix special. In it Burnham derides current stadium country rock and its ability to pander to the audience without actually saying anything. Its excellent satire and I highly recommend it. But Time (The Revelator) is exactly the opposite of this notion. This is a classy, musically wonderful country album that’s full of substance. Welch’s music is very good at painting a picture and unfurling a story in front of you. Take “Elvis Presley Blues,” a song about the later life of the King where he’s “all alone in long decline.” It’s powerfully evocative without being too overstated. Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings form a strong partnership in their songwriting and I found myself really intensely listening to the lyrics on this record and really absorbing them. Time (The Revelator) is a highly acclaimed album and it’s no wonder why. Welch and Rawlings work so well together, Welch’s excellent banjo work is supported by Rawling’s strong guitar work. Welch’s vocals sound tender, but weathered with that classical southern charm, surprising coming from someone born in New York and raised in Los Angeles. Country music may not be to everyone’s tastes, but this is the genre at its finest. Gillian Welch is a star of the scene for a good reason and she certainly won’t be pandering to anyone soon.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
Gillian Welch’s Time (A Revelator) seems to exist outside of a specific time period. The album was released in 2001, but I have no doubt it could’ve been put out at any point in the last fifty years. The songs seem to meander along, drifting through the air with an ease and comfortability that comes with the kind of simple, straightforward songwriting that Welch excels in. The most obvious stylistic sticking point for this “laziness,” for lack of a better term, is the absence of percussion, which often creates the forward movement that these songs lack. Here, we’re left with mostly guitars and banjos, the strummed and plucked sounds humming and wandering underneath Welch’s plaintive vocals. It’s a refreshing sound that never feels underdeveloped or boring, a small miracle and evidence of the mastery Welch has over her music. In addition, her choice to bookend the shorter, more digestible tracks with the small-scale grandiosity of “Revelator” and “I Dream A Highway” is a smart one, both tracks ambling along in a quietly beautiful melancholy that left me thinking about the music long after it was over. With “alt-country” gaining momentum in the indie-sphere over the last few years, perhaps most notably with Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson, it’s a joy to discover musicians like Gillian Welch who have been holding this genre down for many years before the hype, and hopefully will continue for many years to come.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
Time (The Revelator) sounds to me like Appalachian music reinvented by people from the future who only had out of tune guitars and a 78 record playing on a wobbly gramophone to go by. I mean, has there ever been a wronger combination of notes to open a record? Gillian Welch wasn’t from the future, but she did go to Berklee School of Music so she knew what she was doing there, and throughout the record, as she pursued a conjurement of an invented past. Her main mojo hand is her honeyed voice, which seems to have no beginning or end, it just flows from song to song. Her bag of tricks also has Dave Rawlings, master of strings, who contributes virtuoso picking throughout, while also taking occasional chances with dissonance that hurt so good. Speaking of taking chances, many of the lyrics are brilliant but occasionally something will land with a thud, which can break the mood a little. Same goes for the jarring applause during the one live track, which almost sounds phony. Even with its refusal to to acknowledge civilization past, say, 1954 (with a peek at 1977, when Elvis died) in some ways Time (The Revelator) is too arty to be a standard “traditional” record. But even so, it can serve as an effective escape from the present day. After all, there have always been times that we wish we were living in an alternate reality. This election year, for example. 2001 was also one such time and it’s no accident that this was one of the most acclaimed albums of that year. Post-9/11, who didn’t wish that the sinking of the Titanic — or the death of Elvis — was the worst headline they had ever read?
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
While we’ve had some great picks so far, this is personally my most favorite since Gang Starr, and it has nothing to with it being Melissa’s pick. The name Gillian Welch was certainly on my radar, and I knew exactly what she sounds like, but after really sitting down with Time (The Revelator) I’ve got a new level of appreciation for her work. This album is full of well-crafted, simply powerful songs that stick to your soul. For example, she starts the record off with a guitar playing three sets of palate cleansing dissonance just before revealing the first melancholy chord. A kick in the ass to make you pay attention. She made the chorus of “My First Lover” so catchy, I found myself humming it all week, ironically, as thought about what to say. A live recording of “I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll,” my favorite track, sits beautifully right in the middle of the record, breaking things up and setting you up, like the seventh inning stretch for the last half. She brings you back in with “Elvis Presley Blues” and back to back gems, all a setup for the epic end, “I Dream A Highway.” I will be making room for Gillian in my listening habits and I’m sure as I return to this album, it will only get better with time.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
Takes a powerful singer to distract you from amazing guitar ability, but that’s just what we have here.
Holy shit, we’re covering a female artist! Alright, not too awake though, because Gilian Welch pairs perfectly with a lazy Sunday morning in bed. Honestly, there’s just so much to love here. Album opener “Revelator” unspools itself slowly and sumptuously, familiarizing you with Welch’s syrupy voice and preternatural gift for fun melodic tricks (the way she bends “date her” to “revelator” is grin inducing.) Transitioning into the more propulsive “My First Lover,” Welch vividly captures the haziness of memories in hindsight “I do not remember any fights or fits / Just a shaky morning after callin’ it quits.” I’m going to be totally honest, I’m having a hard time keeping my thought on this one brief, because I tempted to just go through track by track. But I have to spotlight “Red Clay Halo” because it’s just such a great little porch sitting summer singalong. It paints such a clear, contented portrait of a lifestyle while still conveying such longing for something. And. Those. Guitars. Y’all, this a really great late summer album. It’s perfect for those moments when you just want to let your head and heart be still for an hour.
Josh Buck (@altq42)
Devout Pop Music Purist
“As opposed to being little tiny folk songs or traditional songs, they’re really tiny rock songs. They’re just performed in this acoustic setting. In our heads we went electric without changing instruments.” – Gillian Welch With a voice that can devastate any listener, it’s surprising the title of this record wasn’t Time (The Devastator). Considering some of the lyrical moments throughout, it practically is without having to point it out. The record covers moments in American history throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and extracts an idea of blissful hope. We watched as presidents were assassinated, mythic men were left broken, musical legends succumb to their own defeat and our creations with the promise of being unbreakable fail. We have every reason to doubt our optimism and revel in cynicism. Welch offers a different argument on Time (The Revelator). In most instances, she chooses to learn from what happened in the past and move forward feeling prepared. Awake with a yearning for what the road ahead can offer any of us. “I Dream A Highway” is still my favorite song on this release and it gleans with a certain bliss. Even at our most broken, we still maintain that we can push forward to the greater pastures of fulfilled opportunity. “A winding ribbon with a band of gold / a silver vision, come and bless my soul” are the final moments shared on Time (The Revelator). This has always seemed like a mantra to exist by. A knowledge that through all of the lessons and scars, we will never falter at the sight of things that should instill fear. Every time I venture back into the world of Welch and subsequently David Rawlings, it reminds me of one of my favorite conversation callbacks. Years ago, I was sitting at a bar with Nick Woods. Woods might be familiar to some as the songwriter behind the Richmond outfits Orioles and The Cheap Seats. With a unique voice and knack for storytelling, Woods was about to venture to Nashville in hopes of being a little bit closer to a musical home at the time. Whenever Ryan Adams would come up, he would always mention Welch with a grin intact and a smoke tucked behind his ear. He would shoot the shit about how Heartbreaker might be a good record, but the records that Rawlings and Welch make are great records. I will never know if I am inclined to believe that. I do know that as far as Time (The Revelator) is concerned, this much is certain. There are a number of records that could be attributed to being good or even great records. In the case of Time (The Revelator), here is what I would refer to as an incredible record and a unique, specific voice in a genre filled to the brim with storytellers. Welch is one of a kind and this record is a frequent reminder of why this has remained the case for more than twenty years now.
Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
Two things about this album. One, I always respect artists that can make great acoustic music. It’s the ultimate musical litmus test. Want to know just how talented a singer/songwriter is? Give them a single instrument, like an acoustic guitar or a piano, and tell them to “go.” There’s nothing to hide behind. Musical raw-dog, if you will (I know, I know… that reference was totally unnecessary, borderline offensive, and sophomoric at best. You are what you write). Secondly, the entire record had me on pins and needles. I’m aware that’s probably not going to be the general consensus here, but let me explain. In my mind, when music such as that put forth by Gillian Welch is this angelic, this peaceful, this relaxing, it triggers an anticipation in me similar to that of watching a horror film — go with me here, this is a good thing. To my ear, that type of serenity is just plain eerie. I’m continuously waiting for the hacksaw to swipe through screen right in the blink of an eye. Same thing here. Are you telling me that “Ruination Day Part II” didn’t give you the chills? You can’t tell me that song isn’t exactly what is sounds like right before a group of coal miners start hearing weird noises between themselves and Hell. Let me be clear — this is my favorite song on the album, for sure. I’ll now be sleeping with the lights on. Again.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Timeless in spirit, ingenious in execution.
I’ve always been the sort of person who would tell you that there are great artists in any genre, that you can find some gold anywhere if you look hard enough. For me — and probably for everyone, really — there are some genres in which this is more easily demonstrated than others. The genre I’ve always had the most trouble with where finding things I loved within it were concerned is country. There was a time when I literally could not find any currently-active country artist I liked — everything was old dead women who made 78s, or still-somehow-alive guys who’d been singing about their hard-living ways since the Sun Records days. But in the early 2000s, I started to find some things that had been happening below the radar recently, and that kind of renewed my faith in even the country genre to find me some buried treasures. Along with Sixteen Horsepower, Songs: Ohia, and the early works of Will Oldham (in his Palace days, before Bonnie Prince Billy), the work of Gillian Welch (and constant collaborator David Rawlings) was a big part of this personal mini-renaissance. Time (The Revelator) was always the magnum opus from these two, and while I don’t quite regard it as the front-to-back masterpiece it’s been canonized as (sorry y’all, but I could really do without “I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll“), this album is still full of incredible songs. The two bookends in particular; “Revelator” begins the album with a dark, foreboding vibe that speaks of ominous portents. And of course, “I Dream A Highway” spends 15 minutes dragging you through an emotional minefield of the lost love dreams that torment us all from time to time. There are a lot of great tunes in the interim, their unadorned simplicity helping to illuminate the top-quality songwriting at work, and thankfully avoiding the tendency of many country artists to overload their work with schmaltzy production choices. This is a late-night album for the ages, and it’ll prove once again that every genre is worth exploring, looking for diamonds in the rough.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
I had a whole blurb about authenticity planned — I was going to quote Bruce Springsteen’s SXSW keynote (“Today authenticity is a house of mirrors”) but argue that Time (The Revelator) exemplifies a more personal version of the concept via consistency (style, personnel, and instrumentation), minimally invasive production (multiple first takes used, minor mistakes left undubbed), and songs about embracing where you’re from (“Red Clay Halo“) and doing what you do best (“I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll” and “Elvis Presley Blues,” both via irony) — then I saw this review. Authenticity is apparently well-worn territory when it comes to Gillian Welch, whose songs somehow sound well-worn even when you’re hearing them for the first time. So let’s talk about my authenticity — or lack thereof — instead! I’d call Welch one of my favorite musicians, I’d call her partnership with Dave Rawlings one of the most inspiring collaborative relationships I’ve ever seen, I ranked The Harrow & The Harvest my favorite album of 2011, and I’d happily talk your ear off about seeing them perform at The National last year and about how excited I am to see them again at Maymont later this month, yet I’d never listened to this album before this week. I’ve been asking myself “Why the hell not?” all week long. Thank you so much for picking this, Melissa. My Welch fandom feels more authentic than ever.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
I stumbled across Gillian Welch as one of several fortuitous stumblings through college radio in the late ’90s and early ’00s. It was actually through Ryan Adams’ album Heartbreaker that I came to know of Welch’s and Rawlings’ talents, albeit there in a supporting role. There’s such a sweet rawness about their approach to music. Many are capable of playing and singing, but few on this kind of transcendent level. We’re not just talking run-of-the-mill folkish Americana, something more pure underlies these songs. The songs that always take center stage much more than any style or affectation plaguing so much of the genre. “I wanna sing that rock ‘n’ roll / I wanna ‘lectrify my soul” she belts (which on a side note, look up their version of Radiohead’s “Black Star“). Harmonies so tender as to induce a satisfying chill and smile as the course runs a not-so-straight line through the various folkish modes track after track. Every strum, every pick exudes a delicate feel and intention that demonstrates how much higher innate ability sits above the competent or technical. Endearingly plaintiff, gently stark, lyrically so immediately human and timeless at the same time, Time (The Revelator) epitomizes everything great about unclouded country music and resides in a league of its own. It’s like a breath of fresh air infused into a landscape of the trendy and tawdry. Regardless of your personally proclivities, I believe we can all agree these are notes of gold.
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
If I open my mouth now, ten years removed from a permanent Alabama address, you can still hear traces of the pine trees, the hot dusty clay caking my shoes red. I hesitate sometimes to talk about how I grew up, knowing that when I explain how I couldn’t see a neighbor from my yard, how I graduated with a class of 31 other people from a K-12 county school, I’ll get heaped into a pile of rednecks with trucks and beauty pageant girls all mud-riding their way to church as often as possible. It’s a picture painted through alt-country, spoken out the mouths of Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, a place where your elders know more than you and boys are just being boys and women are expected to be God-fearing sweet-mouthed hellcats in cut-off jeans. I grew up in that, yes, but it was a TV version of a life, a radio-edit that didn’t include the quiet kind of church and beauty that you can find in Gillian Welch’s Time (the Revelator). In her lower-pitched dulcet voice, in those acoustic, open guitar strings, lies the reverence felt when walking alone down my road, asphalt but unpainted, winding along to just a few neighbors scattered out among the cow fields and untouched forest. Against the backdrop of hot Carolina scrub brush and pastel surf shops advertising bikinis and sandals at 2-for-1 prices, I first played the strands of this album, and I didn’t like it very much. The cheapness of tourist traps distracted, made the honesty and simplicity of the album fall flat against my ears. Only days later, sitting outside in a gentle rain, tumbler of red wine lit up by a strand of white lights hugging the porch rail, did the raw bittersweetness of the album push through. This is not one for a busy morning, a commute down the highway to a job you only kind of like; nor is it a lullaby, soothing as the absence of percussion and that smoky voice are. No, this is reverence, this is hot nights on the porch while your grandpa plays hymnals on the steel guitar and sings roughly tender out into the starlit night. This is church.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
I’ll come clean: my knowledge of Gillian Welch begins with her slight inclusion on the landmark soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? — well, slight inclusion from first glance that is. Welch served as an associate producer to T-Bone Burnett for the soundtrack, but as far as the younger me was concerned, all Welch had to do with the soundtrack was two songs, one of which had her paired with two other singers for a short performance that was my absolute favorite of the soundtrack: “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby.” Of course, I knew Emmylou Harris, a dozen years before her name would be melodically branded in my mind thanks to First Aid Kit, and as much as I have absconded from country music over the years, I was more than familiar with Alison Krauss. But Gillian Welch? She was unknown to me at the time as I perfected the art of hitting repeat anytime that song came on, so I decided to check her out. I caught a few songs here and there, whatever was most readily available on Limewire. I can’t recall which were what, but I do remember hearing and loving “Red Clay Halo” at the time, with the finish always reminding me of Tommy “Robert” Johnson ending that song in Mr. Lund’s studio. Again, I’m a huge fan of the movie and soundtrack. Anyway, I’d love to say I went out and bought Time (The Revelator) and everything she made after that, but the sad truth is that I kept a casual awareness of her from then on. So this week’s OYR assignment was my first experience with a Welch record and it quickly confirmed my worst fear heading into this week: I had wasted 15 years of my life not pursuing the entire Acony Records catalogue. Of course, you can’t mention this record without highlighting David Rawlings’ extravagant guitar playing, but without it, I’d be just as much entranced by Welch’s voice. The tone hooks you early on, with a vibrant sorrow that’s shockingly inviting, but it’s her phrasing and pace that keeps that entrancement strong throughout. “The bul-let in the ba-ack of her head,” she prudently sings on “Ruination Day Part II” with a carefully inflected cadence that lays out tragedy just as strong as any caterwauler. It’s simply incredibly how impactful it makes the music, and how it can even make her timeless voice take a backseat at times. When they come together in an effortlessly intricate weave though — like on the titular line of “I Dream A Highway” — I just can’t imagine anyone being immune to her spell. Clearly she took her singing role as a siren for the Cohen Brothers serious.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
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