Appalachian old-time, folk and string-band music has too often been heard as the crude, naturalistic output of unstudied musicians who operate primarily on instinct. No duo has more profoundly recast those expectations over the last two decades than Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, who’ve mainly performed under her name. (On occasions when he sings lead, they’re the Dave Rawlings Machine instead.) Together, these two highly educated singers, songwriters and instrumentalists have approached antique musical forms as an exalted craft, acclimating audiences to a refinement nested in austerity. Without their body of work, it’s difficult to imagine a subsequent generation of acoustic artists — Sarah Jarosz, The Milk Carton Kids, Aoife O’Donovan, Lewis & Leigh, Mandolin Orange and Dori Freeman, to name a few — finding such smooth passage into sophisticated, contemporary exploration of rustic environs.
Welch’s debut album Revival arrived at its 20th anniversary this year, which was motivation enough for Welch and Rawlings to sift through their vast musical archives and select 21 tracks that document what they were up to — a combination of emulation, experimentation and cultivation — before they emerged as leading lights in an ascendant Americana scene. That they’ve titled the project The Official Revival Bootleg drives home that this granting of behind-the-scenes access is a considered move by its creators, and a savvy one. It’s fascinating to follow along as Welch and Rawlings feel their way to their singular sound, whose essential ingredients include “the rawboned refinement of their songwriting, the comely and lilting crooks in Welch’s phrasing, the shimmery dissonance of their harmonies and the prickly, surging ecstasy of Rawlings’ guitar runs.”