One of the less harrowing aspects of lockdown is that informal live music is more accessible online than it used to be: at any rate for me, since online sessions don’t entail long walks to and from bus stops. So I’ve derived an unexpected pleasure from hearing songs again that I haven’t heard since the days when I visited at least one folk session per week. I had that thought after hearing the album All The Good Times, by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, re-released last month, featuring ten cover versions that happen to represent some well-loved Americana from the last 50+ years.
In this case, the retro vibe is enhanced in that they recorded it using a reel-to-reel tape recorder, often keeping the first take (there’s even a vinyl release due later this year, but that’s not so unusual these days). While there are one or two quirky moments, the sound quality is much better than you might expect. In fact, I’m almost tempted to go looking for the 4-track cassette recorder I haven’t seen since we moved house in 2016, but I suspect that it won’t give me this quality of sound, let alone make me sing as well as Gillian.
Here’s the track list.
- Elizabeth Cotton’s ‘Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie’ was my own introduction to playing ragtime-y alternating bass notes on guitar, and perhaps there’s never been an aspiring ragtime player who hasn’t learned it at some point. Here, though, while there’s still that underlying bass pattern, the song is taken at a more leisurely pace than usual, with acoustic lead lines that give it a much more fluid, chromatic feel, without in any way detracting from Gillian’s accomplished vocals and David’s harmonies on the chorus. If I ever sing this in public again, I’ll certainly have rethought my own arrangement in the light of this version.
- David almost sounds more like Dylan than Dylan in his lead vocals on the sinister ‘Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)’, but it works without a hint of parody. The track is taken more slowly than the version on Street Legal, but that only adds to the intensity of the delivery.
- Gillian picks up the pace a little with the traditional ‘Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss’, but they resist the temptation to go for a breakneck bluegrass speeding ticket. In fact, I think I prefer it at this speed.
- ‘Hello In There’ doesn’t quite have a raw intensity of John Prine’s original recording, but it’s so beautifully sung and played, I feel slightly guilty at saying so. Besides, it’s a song that can’t be heard too often.
- The traditional ‘Poor Ellen Smith’ is taken more slowly than customary – that seems to be a trademark – but then it’s not quite the same tune or lyric that I remember from the singing of Peggy Seeger et al. Anyway, this way works well with David’s rough-hewn lead vocal.
- David takes lead vocal again on the traditional ‘All The Good Times Are Past And Gone’ with very nice harmonies from Gillian.
- Norman Blake’s ‘Ginseng Sullivan’ is new to me: it’s a very interesting story song, and particularly well sung here.
- ‘Abandoned Love’ is another Bob Dylan song, which David sings rather well. For some reason, the track ends rather abruptly and noisily on the last line of the last verse, as if the tape ran out just before the end. An interesting effect, but not one I’ll be trying to emulate digitally.
- I can’t say I’ve ever heard ‘Jackson’, by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber, sung in a folk club, or if I have I’ve repressed the memory. Still, while it’s not a personal favourite, this lively version stacks up perfectly well next to Cash & Carter or Sinatra & Hazelwood. It also makes an interesting contrast to ‘Hello In There’, which also suggests a marriage that’s run out of steam, though for very different reasons.
- ‘Y’All Come’ finishes the album on an equally lively note with a song by ‘The Singing School Teacher’ Arlie Duff that definitely invites the listener to come again.
And I rather think I might. Certainly I’ll be looking out for more of their recordings, and if you’re a lover of Americana, I think you’ll like this. Lots of people evidently do: the initial pressing in 2020 sold out in 48 hours.
Artist’s website: gillianwelch.com/
‘Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)’: