Essentials: The Top 10 Gillian Welch/David Rawlings songs

Credit: Henry Diltz

There were a few surprise absences from our recent readers’ and writers’ polls to find the top 10 greatest ever americana artists. While, as with any vote, if we ran it again tomorrow the results would be different, for me one of the most obvious missing names was Gillian Welch. When thinking about her work, you have to also consider her musical partner David Rawlings. Although it took until 2020 and a global pandemic for them to release an album credited jointly, all their best work is a blend of their two voices.

Their music has always contained elements of music from earlier times, old timey, traditional country, and bluegrass, but often mixed with Rawlings’ unique guitar style. No Depression said of Rawlings’ way with his 1930s Epiphone. He “squeezes, strokes, chokes and does just about everything but blow into” his guitar.

Their collective CV which has always emphasised quality over quantity. With gaps between new work lengthening, and archival releases and guest appearances taking up much of the last decade there are gems to be uncovered in their tangled discography.

Number 10:Orphan Girl’

We start where her career did with what is still one of her best-known songs. The power is in the words: “I am an orphan on God’s highway. But I’ll share my troubles if you go my way. I have no mother no father no sister no brother. I am an orphan girl,” attracted attention before her own recording career got started. Emmylou Harris cut it on ‘Wrecking Ball’, but the simplicity of her version on ‘Revival,’ set the bar for the many covers that have followed.

Number 9:Ginseng Sullivan’

Jumping to the other end of the Welch/Rawlings career we have a song written by Norman Blake in the 1970s, that has been transformed into a vehicle for one of Rawlings’ typically elliptical guitar solos. As mentioned above this is their first jointly credited album, but the mixture is very much as before.

Number 8:The Last Pharaoh’

Credited to the Dave Rawlings Machine but featuring Welch on the cover and as collaborator throughout ‘Nashville Obsolete’ is one of their “new but sounds like it was written in 1932” songs. The main difference, if there really is one, is that when he’s the credited performer the harmonies lean in favour of Rawlings, but it’s a fine distinction.

Number 7:Method Acting / Cortez The Killer’

The closest to a genuine Rawlings solo effort, although Welch still co-wrote 5 of 9 songs. This medley of Neil Young and Conor Oberst songs is the album’s centrepiece. Elsewhere Benmont Tench, and members of Old Crow Medicine Show fill out the sound. The Young style guitar solo at the end of this is wonderful.

Number 6:When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings’

This won the Oscar for best original song after its appearance in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’. There’s actually nothing remarkable about it in the context of the Welch/Rawlings song list, it’s just that it is so much better than anything anyone else was doing.

Number 5:Scarlet Town’

After 8 years away Welch released ‘The Harrow & the Harvest’. In explaining the absence Welch said “Our songcraft slipped and I really don’t know why. It’s not uncommon. It’s something that happens to writers.” This dark folk tune opens the album with a masterclass in guitar from Rawlings behind one of Welch’s best vocal performances.

Number 4:Elvis Presley Blues’

Time (The Revelator)’ was an entry on many best of year lists in 2001, and it made number 9 on AUK’s Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century. Its influence crops up frequently, notably on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s joint work. Rock and roll references pepper the album, nowhere more so than on this song.

Number 3:Sin City’

With recent years having been occupied this song is one of the highlights. Released on ‘Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs’  and with 48 songs across 3 volumes they have made a thorough clear out of the vaults into a look at the inventiveness of 2 remarkable artists.

Number 2:Wrecking Ball’

On its release ‘Soul Journey ‘was praised as their best work to date. The fuller band sound met with some disapproval. This Dylan-style song is one of the best songs on what remains, for me, her best album. Organ and electric guitar make this a very different Welch/Rawlings song.

Number 1:Look At Miss Ohio’

But the best song on her best album is still a simple arrangement with just a few touches of extra arrangement in the dobro that drops in between the words. When the drums kick in they just serve to emphasise Welch’s determination to live life on her own terms.

About Tim Martin 241 Articles
Sat in my shed listening to music, and writing about some of it. Occasionally allowed out to attend gigs.
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Steve T

I get this is a personal choice but to not include “Caleb Mayer”, “Everything is Free” and their masterpiece “Time (the revelator)” is just perverse especially compared to some of the songs on this list.

Robin

These list articles are becoming more and more bizarre. Maybe just stick to artist features, interviews and reviews rather than issuing ‘definitive’ lists which serve no worthwhile purpose.

David Watt

Regarding the previous comments, I have an opposing view. I like the fact that this list is highly idiosyncratic, when often these types of lists are predictable. Tim Martin has shed light on lesser-known songs, and I’m looking forward to checking them out!

Pete Feldon

Great selection. In the spirit of sign-posting some of the lesser known songs, one of my favourites is the demo version of “Paper Wings” on Boots No.1. It’s given a lovely late 1950’s, pop country treatment.