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How Gillian Welch and David Rawlings Held Onto Optimism

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When she was 9, she would play through James Taylor and Simon and Garfunkel songbooks. When she hit the end of the books, eager for more songs, she figured she could write her own. At 10, she started in on her first notebook. After graduating from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with an arts degree, Welch traveled to Europe. She thought she would stay abroad for a while and continue to just play music for her own enjoyment, but her parents had other plans. “Well, they thought I was never going to come home,” she says. “So, partly to get me to come back — and recognizing that I was a little lost — they offered to pay for a year of music school.” Welch made her way to Berklee in Boston.

Rawlings grew up in North Smithfield, R.I., and had a slower start to his musical ambitions. Or, understanding that Welch’s start was extraordinary, it can be said that Rawlings had a normal start. “I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was maybe 16,” he tells me. “It was that moment in the ’70s when, in country music, that urban-cowboy thing was happening. And so there was stuff like, you know, Kenny Rogers — some of that stuff had broken through. Like Jim Croce. And if it was a story song, I’d memorize the words, and I’d sing them in my head all of the time.” He wanted to get an instrument to play them. Rawlings and his family went to a Catholic church where elders “on the hippie side of things” would play 12-string guitars during Mass. But when Rawlings finally did get his own guitar, he got good at it quickly because his fingers were so agile from a childhood of obsessive video-game playing. “I was always kind of systematic about things that I wanted to try to get good at,” Rawlings says. “And there’d been things I enjoyed, like playing basketball, where I knew that no matter how hard I tried to drill it into myself, there was a ceiling. And I think as soon as I got the guitar, I realized I maybe didn’t have a ceiling.” He, too, eventually enrolled at Berklee.

In the early ’90s, Berklee wasn’t exactly flush with roots and folk musicians. “It was always just 19 dudes on electric guitar and then me,” Welch says. “There was one country-roots ensemble in the whole school, and we both auditioned for it and got in.”

Both Rawlings and Welch talk of a moment that decided their partnership, a month or two after leaving Berklee and moving to Nashville in 1992. They were sitting in Rawlings’s kitchen. Knowing they had a shared interest in duets, they started noodling around on their guitars and singing the classic “Long Black Veil.” They instantly sensed the bones of something good, potential they honed until it was fully realized. Rawlings tells me, “If you have the same North Star as someone, and if you’re trying to walk in the same direction, something will click.”

Credit…From Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

There is the musical definition of harmony, but there is also a part of that definition — “a pleasing arrangement of parts” — that can be mapped onto the emotional, the personal. If a duo has really dug themselves in, as Welch and Rawlings have, the stakes are precariously high. So much can go wrong if one person doesn’t afford the other grace, or generosity, or the ability to be met halfway, no matter how dark the road. Welch and Rawlings have a clear understanding of when to give each other space and when to collide. And when they do collide, it isn’t as if they’re elbowing each other in a fight for land. It sounds, more often, like two people telling the exact same story from two different rooms in the same house.

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