Gillian Welch’s “The Harrow & The Harvest” Review

I was introduced to Gillian Welch by my son, Michael, who loves American Roots and Bluegrass music, so I was excited when I saw that The Harrow & The Harvest is finally available on vinyl. Gillian Welch is an American singer-songwriter who performs with her musical partner, guitarist David Rawlings. Their music is often described as sparse and dark. It combines elements of Appalachian music, bluegrass and Americana musical styles.

Welch and Rawlings have released five critically acclaimed albums under the name Gillian Welch and two under the name Dave Rawlings Machine. The Harrow & The Harvest, their fifth studio album, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. You might know Welch from her work as the associate producer of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack that was a platinum album and won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2002. She also performed on two tracks of that album.

Rawlings and Welch were Berklee College of Music students. When I think of Berklee, I don’t think folk music, but man can these two make music. Rawlings’ guitar blends with Welch’s in a way that is beyond “picking and grinning”. Their guitar and banjo playing has rich textures and harmonics that are simply wonderful to listen to. Their voices are also unique, interesting and quite engaging.

There is a mysterious quality to this album. The mystery starts with the title. I know you know what a harvest is, but did your know that to harrow means to break up clods of earth before sowing seeds. Then there is the cover, a kind of art deco look with Welch and Rawlings dressed in medieval clothes surrounded by significant flora and fauna and an owl sitting on Rawlings’ shoulder. Then, there are the lyrics. In “Scarlet Town,” there’s a deep well, a dark grave, an iron bell and something  we don’t know that “did mortify my soul.” On “Silver Dagger,” Welch’s protagonist is “on the dark side of a hollow hill;” she is “through with food.” Is she a ghost, and was she killed by her lover? I don’t know, but I find it fascinating.

Martin Chilton of The Telegraph said, “The interplay between Welch and David Rawlings’s guitars is dazzlingly expert as they dance around the slow, melancholy beauty of Welch’s voice. There cannot be another musical duet around at the moment who are able to make two acoustic guitars and two voices produce a sound that is so subtle and yet powerful.” Chilton’s article, which is a profile of Welch you might find interesting, was written just after she received a lifetime achievement award at the 2015 Americana Awards in Nashville.

Originally released on CD, now we finally have this great album on vinyl, and I promise you it was worth the wait. It was mastered directly from the original tape. To do this, they used custom Ortofon amplifiers directly to a Neumann VMS-80 cutting system. It was plated and pressed at Quality Record Pressings. Welch said, “We have been working and waiting 20 years to bring you our music on a phonograph record. It took a while because we wanted to do it the right way, the absolute best way humanly possible, and I believe that’s what we’ve done. No sonic stone was left unturned, no nuance let fall by the wayside. There is honestly nothing else I can imagine hoping to hear out of the original tapes. It is all there in the groove. As people whose lives were changed by the sound of music coming off turntables, we humbly invite you to include us in your record collection.” 

In 2013, Welch and Rawlings bought their own cutting lathe for $100,000 after they finally concluded that doing the recording themselves was the only way to achieve results they would be satisfied with. Now five years later, they have finally released the first two LPs cut from tape on their lathe and on their label, Acony Records, Welch’s album, The Harvest & The Harrow, and Rawlings’ album, Poor David’s Almanack. You can find out more about their desire to reissue albums using the original tapes, their lathe and on their label in this profile in the Washington Post.

The recording of The Harrow & The Harvest is quite three dimensional with beautiful tone and harmonics. The pressing is dead quiet. Combine this with the really great songs and performances on this LP, and all I can say is if you like folk, bluegrass or American roots music, this is a must-have album! And, if you live in South Carolina or Georgia, check out their tour dates in your area in April.

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