For many college students, their university years are full of discovery and tipping point-type moments, the impact of which isn't fully felt for many more years. If it wasn't for one such instance, latter day roots-music icon Gillian Welch might now be known (and probably barely so) as a surf-punk drummer or a goth band's bassist.
Needless to say, her audio interests were fully plugged in and cranked up.
One day, when attending University of California Santa Cruz in the early '90s, her roommate played an album by Bluegrass legends the Stanley Brothers, and Welch was instantaneously hooked on the style that she had largely ignored since her childhood. Shortly thereafter, while studying music at Boston's acclaimed Berklee College of Music, Welch made another leap into her roots-intensive direction when she met and partnered up with Rhode Island-raised guitar hero David Rawlings, who has been her artistic companion ever since.
Over the next few years, as one millennium bled into another, a blend of intricate folk storytelling, unassailable acoustic mastery and Welch's signature lonesome, moaning vocals would turn her into a Grammy-winning, platinum-selling A-lister. Sure, her 1996 debut album, Revival and 2001's faultless Time (The Revelator) attracted plenty of fans, sales and trophies, but it was her participation in the transcendently successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack that put her songs in the ears of people who had never before cared much about country music, let alone traditional bluegrass or roots music.
Because of the time period in which the Coen Brothers-directed film took place, and, to a lesser extent, the retro fashions that Welch and Rawlings are often dressed in when performing, many will clumsily refer to the duo as "old-timey," but such brainless labeling misses the point by an Appalachian mile. It's important to note the not-so-subtle difference between "old timey" and "timeless," especially when it comes to Welch's most acclaimed records, including her most recent offering under her own name (she also performs with Rawlings as a part of the group the David Rawlings Machine), 2011's elegantly rustic The Harrow and the Harvest.
An "old timey" album may feature traditional country instrumentation or rural subject matter, but its case is made only on the surface, telling you how old-timey it is. A truly timeless record doesn't have to shout its age-old bonafides because you don't hear the songs as much as you feel the ghosts of American music rattle their way up from dancehall hardwoods, smoke-filled subterranean folk clubs, and so many misty mountain tops. The difference between the two distinctions is akin to the gap in beauty between an old, dusty, cracked lamp from the '80s sitting in a suburban resale shop and one of country legend Gram Parsons' beloved, bedazzled and classic "Nudie" suits.
It was Parsons who used to boldly claim that country music, when sang in just the right way, is every bit as soulful as the sounds coming out of Motown's Detroit and Stax's Memphis were before his death in 1973. It's not the actual sounds coming off a record or springing forth from a stage that makes something soulful, but the complete conviction and full-bodied heart with which the music is delivered that reveals its spirit.
Thanks to Welch's musical compass leading her in unexpected directions, she's arrived at a point to where her art defies definition and brings home the notion that what is truly timeless is also deeply soulful.
Aug. 23 at 8 p.m. at the Majestic Theater, 1925 Elm Street, Dallas. $27-$32. www.ticketmaster.com