Even before the coronavirus pandemic began in earnest in the US, Nashville was reeling. In early March, a series of vicious tornadoes whipped across Tennessee with winds of up to 175mph. In a frighteningly short time, ancient trees were uprooted, sturdy buildings and homes were reduced to rubble and 25 lives were lost.
In Music City, USA’s Five Points neighbourhood, the historic Woodland Studio, built in 1967 and the site of countless classic sessions, had its roof peeled off like a can of sardines, exposing the interior to a torrential downpour. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who have owned the studio for close to 20 years, spent the night and morning desperately trying to salvage whatever they could – recording gear, master tapes, rare guitars, lyric notebooks. Remarkably, though the damage to the building itself was extensive, Welch and Rawlings were able to save most of these items. In the midst of a tragedy, at least the duo could breathe a small sigh of relief.
Not so fast. A different kind of natural disaster – the Covid-19 pandemic – was waiting in the wings. Still managing the after-effects of the storm, Nashville soon went into lockdown. Welch and Rawlings, who have spent the better part of the last quarter-century on the road, canceled their 2020 tour dates and hunkered down at home. What next?
Music, of course. Seeking solace, sanity and a much-needed distraction from the daily influx of bad news, Gillian and Dave began playing covers. They tried out some age-old folk songs. They worked up a few favourites of a slightly more recent vintage. And they dug up some songs that exist in a nether region between those two poles. It all sounded too good not to share. Soon, Rawlings broke out a trusty reel-to-reel tape machine and hit the “record” button, capturing 10 tracks for posterity. The results of these intimate home sessions can now be heard by the rest of us on the casually masterful All The Good Times, released digitally in July, and now available on CD and vinyl. The 10-song collection is the equivalent of being welcomed into Welch and Rawlings’ living room and the pair treating you to a private recital. In other words, it doesn’t get much better than this. Make yourself right at home.
The studio albums released under Welch’s name since 1996 have been primarily devoted to original compositions (though her knack for an age-old melody or turn of phrase has fooled some). However, anyone who has seen Welch and Rawlings onstage knows that they are expert interpreters of others’ material. Often, they’ll stay snugly in their comfort zone, tackling a classic country or bluegrass number with glee. But they’re not afraid to explore slightly more adventurous territory; live, the duo has been known to break out a goth-folk rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” from time to time — and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard their soaring re-imagining of Radiohead’s “Black Star”. No matter what songs Welch and Rawlings set their sights on, they almost always find the sweet spot between reverence to their sources and a unique, ineffable magic.
All The Good Times is indeed magical. The album kicks off with a deliciously slow rendering of folk-blues godmother Elizabeth Cotten’s “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie”, Welch and Rawlings’ vocals intertwining around the well-worn melody and sassy lyrics. Things then move into a darker realm, with Rawlings taking the lead vocal for the next tune, Bob Dylan’s “Señor”. Drawn from 1978’s Street-Legal, it’s a fever dream set to ominous minor chords, featuring some of Dylan’s most hallucinatory visions. Hearing it in Welch and Rawlings’ hands amid the disorienting chaos of 2020, it rings disturbingly true. “This place don’t make sense to me no more,” they sing, their voices rising together in a haunting crescendo. “Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?” In these uncertain times, it’s as good a question as any.
A little less heavy, but no less effective, is Welch and Rawlings’ take on another Dylan tune – the Desire-era deep-cut “Abandoned Love”. Dylan only performed it live once and recorded it half-heartedly in 1975, but here it sounds like a true classic, Rawlings’ reedy voice wrapping itself around Bob’s riddling tale of loving and leaving. The best part is getting to eavesdrop on the sparkling chemistry Gillian and Dave share, hearing one egging the other on, their smiles practically audible through your speakers. Even when they miss a lyric (or when they abruptly run out of tape at the end), it still feels right. This is Welch and Rawlings at their most intimate and relaxed, finding moments of unfettered joy in imperfections, laughter amid heartbreak.
The record flows naturally, the duo traveling freely through time and memory. They go way back for the trad-folk chestnut “Fly Around Pretty Little Miss”, a breezy and beautiful piece that provides an ideal showcase for Welch and Rawlings’ clear-as-country-water vocal blend. With Rawlings again taking the lead, the classic murder ballad “Poor Ellen Smith” is an impossibly lonesome lament with roots that stretch back to the 19th century. Norman Blake’s “Ginseng Sullivan” isn’t a folk song in the truest sense, but it may as well be, with rambling guitars and a homesick chorus. And despite its less-than-cheery title, “All The Good Times Are Past And Gone” will bring a smile, thanks to its combination of world-weariness and graceful acceptance.
All The Good Times’ centrepiece is the almost unbearably poignant version of “Hello In There” by John Prine, a fitting tribute to a master songwriter. Prine, a longtime hero of Welch’s, passed away this spring as a result of complications related to Covid-19. Welch and Rawlings’ mournful take on his quietly devastating meditation on the ravages of time is enough to melt the hardest of hearts. “You know that old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers grow wilder every day,” Prine’s aching chorus goes, Welch and Rawlings’ voices softly yearning together. “Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’” Careful: this one stings.
All The Good Times offers a little bit of sunshine amid the tears, however. The duo’s ride through “Jackson”, the classic Johnny Cash/June Carter divorce anthem crackles with joy and mischief. Even as an acoustic act, they’ve always been able to whip up the locomotive energy of a full-fledged rock’n’roll band, locking in on the rollicking rhythms and letting them ride. And the closer, Arlie Huff’s down-home “Y’all Come” positively beams with positivity and neighbourly warmth, leaving listeners with a necessary dose of optimism for the inevitably tough days, weeks, months and years ahead. “Y’all come to see us when you can,” Gil and Dave sing merrily – here’s hoping we’ll be able to do just that in the not-too-distant future.