Gillian Welch on the healing power of road trips: 'In every street sign there is poetry'

The Americana star and musical partner David Rawlings are embarking on a 7,000km-plus drive across Australia, taking in two laps of the east coast

Gillian Welch wants to see some kangaroos. She didn’t see any the only other time she was in Australia so the country music star wants to rectify that when she returns for the first time in 12 long years. And since the tour is as much road trip as musical event – band and crew are going to drive between gigs, starting in Perth and taking in two laps of the east coast – it seems designed for the purpose.

“Last time we saw some wombats – I think that’s what they were – going across the road, a whole mess of ’em. But we didn’t see kangaroos so I want to see some this time,” says Welch, who is well aware that there might not be much else to look at on parts of the 7,000km-plus trip.

“The tour has been designed by us,” she says, meaning herself and musical partner Dave Rawlings. “We’ve wanted to do this for a long time. Last time we drove from Brisbane to Melbourne and that was the end of the tour. We didn’t get to turn the corner and continue the tour.

“Everyone is super excited and they know what we’re in for. People say to me, ‘It’s different to the US, there’s nothing in between.’ But my reaction to that is, ‘Great.’ People don’t tour the way we do.”

There is no doubt the pair are a bit different. Apart from the driving thing (have they even looked at the map, I wonder?), they are splitting the focus of the tour so Welch takes centre stage with her material from Perth to Brisbane before they morph into the Dave Rawlings Machine from Brisbane back to Melbourne.

Welch’s sublime blend of country, blues and folk traditions has led to sold-out shows in Australia. Songs such as Caleb Meyer, April the 14th and I Dream a Highway have established a special niche in the Americana catalogue. With Welch spinning tales of Okies and outlaws, backed by Rawlings’ harmonies and dipping and soaring guitar licks, they make for a spellbinding stage spectacle.

“We really enjoy playing live and like being on the road,” Welch says. “It feels like what I’m supposed to be doing. There’s something natural about it. It’s such a sense of how you get better by playing a chunk of shows.

“We hope the shows are transportive, transfixing. We’re trying to give people a unique experience. I hold playing live in special regard. And it’s different because of the people who show up.”

Welch has not released new material under her name since 2011 but the Machine recently released an excellent second album, Nashville Obsolete, showcasing the pair’s rockier impulses and Rawlings’ extraordinary guitar playing.

“With the tour, we hope people will get both bands,” Welch says. “When we get to Brisbane, we’re going to turn around and reverse direction. Two different ensembles, two different catalogues.

“It’s been really important doing both and trying to broaden what we do because it can get focused right down to a razor’s edge. We have the same record collections but he can’t do what I can do, and I can’t do what he does. We get to cover different territory and the music that we love. With the Machine we push deeper into that Dylanesque, ramshackle rock. And I can push deeper into the Stanley brothers, Townes Van Zandt kind of stuff.”

Welch seems to have inherited the natural storytelling gift of those great names. She was born in New York but adopted as a baby before growing up in California where her parents worked as TV writers. Many people have wondered how this woman from the coasts can evoke the spirit of the US south so vividly. But, speaking to her by phone as she and Rawlings drive to a show in Houston, it’s obvious how she brings the sights and sounds of the American landscape to life, from the beauty of Appalachia to the backyard wreckage of abandoned cars.

“Being on the road is my way to check in with the state of the union,” she says. “It’s a first-hand way to see what’s going on out here, to get the vibe.

“I always say to people, if they’re feeling depressed go take a road trip and see what’s actually happening. I’ve never been bored in a car. In every street sign there is poetry and history and all these beautiful images. You see so much crazy stuff. The other day I saw an old car buried in beer cans. Someone had filled big 60-gallon bags with the cans and left them all on top of the car. But over time the bags had popped open and covered the car in cans.

“The US is a real car culture which the country is totally wrapped up in. They hold our memories and hopes for the future so people don’t like to get rid of them,” she says, perhaps nonchalantly sketching out a future songscape as she goes off to dream another highway.

The Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings Machine tour of Australia begins in Perth on 30 January and ends in Melbourne on 19 February


Martin Farrer

The GuardianTramp

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