Gillian Welch keeps busy while keeping it minimal 

Where has folk-country raconteur Gillian Welch been since her last release, 2003’s “Soul Journey”? “Not on vacation, that’s for sure,” Welch says, glad to be returning with a knockout new Southern-Gothic-steeped effort, “The Harrow & The Harvest,” on her own Acony imprint. She and her musical partner, Dave Rawlings, were writing tons of songs.

“But we just didn’t like them enough to put them out,” she says. “And at my darkest moments, after so many years had gone past, I had to tell myself ‘Well, maybe I’m just not going to do this anymore. Maybe I don’t have anything else to say.’”

How did Welch — who plays The City tonight, fresh from dates opening for Buffalo Springfield — find her hickory-smoked voice again? The one that first wowed listeners on her 1996 debut “Revival”? Easy, she explains — she has San Francisco’s own Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival to thank.

“We play it every year, and it’s just a magical event,” she says. “But we came offstage there last year and felt like that was the last straw — I just couldn’t imagine playing any more shows without new songs. It just wasn’t acceptable, and both Dave and I felt the same way, almost embarrassed.”

So she and Rawlings made serious plans. Post-festival, they returned to their native Nashville, Tenn., bought a huge dry-erase calendar, and began logging newly finished numbers on it, every week. The system worked.

“We’ve never had such a concentrated and fruitful writing spurt as what happened to us last October-November-December-January,” says Welch, 43. “And all of our frustration and disappointment from the last few years just finally found an outlet.”

Thus, the new album is an exercise in minimal arrangement, with nary a note — nor an evocative phrase — out of place. Welch and Rawlings met at the Berklee College of Music, but they wanted to reconnect with the rustic Dixie charm that first inspired them upon their move to Nashville in ’92.

This led to the Appalachian-style murder ballads on “Harrow,” such as “Silver Dagger,” “Scarlet Town,” and “Six White Horses.” “Hard Times” even resuscitates vintage Stephen Foster-isms.

“We’ve always been drawn to the darker, more ominous and dangerous folk music,” Welch says.

Pre-comeback, Welch stayed busy recording with the Decemberists, Bright Eyes and Robyn Hitchcock, and even made an animated appearance on TV’s “Squidbillies” cartoon.

“I was a cardinal, Dave was a squirrel, and the song we sang was ‘Listen To The Animals,’” she says. “And the verses were very fitting — we were warning people about trusting the government, and telling them to build a fortified compound for when the ‘revenooers’ come!”


Gillian Welch

When: Where: Tickets: Contact: (800) 745-3000,

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Tom Lanham

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