For the Good Times brings a welcome rawness and spontaneity to Welch and Rawlings’ typical fare.
Many of us have turned to distraction to help weather the long days of quarantine. Maybe that was found in breadmaking. Maybe it was your neighbor’s Disney+ subscription. For Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, it was folk music. Holed up in their home studio, with touring life a distant dream, the two of them passed the time with staples and semi-obscurities from American singer/songwriter traditions, recording their rambles directly to reel-to-reel tape. Ten of their best home recordings appear on For the Good Times, surprise-released almost a decade after Welch’s The Harrow & the Harvest. It’s similar in sound yet feels different from the albums usually released under Welch’s name, perhaps the first of her albums that could rightly be labeled spontaneous or off-the-cuff. (Five of its songs are reported to be first takes.) The two usually-fastidious performers pick and harmonize in a loose, Nashville vérité style — you can even occasionally hear one of them bump into their microphone — and at least one song ends abruptly as the analog recording equipment runs out of road.
Compared to weighty, carefully-considered masterworks like Time (The Revelator), All the Good Times can’t help but feel like a bit of a lark, yet this shaggy, concept-free album may capture the heart of Welch/Rawlings as accurately as anything else they’ve done: It’s folk music for its own sake, rooted, ageless, and liberating. Pleasures stack up pretty quickly. Given the duo’s typical gravitas, it’s disarming to hear them lean into a feisty take on Johnny and June’s “Jackson.” And, at times, their excavations allow them to engage in a little cosplay, which has the uncanny effect of making them sound more than ever like themselves: Listen to how Rawlings perfectly conjures Bob Dylan’s venomous sneer on the cover of Biograph chestnut “Abandoned Love,” even as the jittery guitar work is undeniably on-brand. Not every song is as well-known, and Welch and Rawlings continue to earn their reputation as stalwart archivists of the folk tradition: Maybe you don’t know much about Elizabeth Cotton, for example, but All the Good Times will make you want to change that. And then there are the ones you probably do know about, such as the late John Prine’s “Hello in There” which gives Welch a chance to show off one of her greatest gifts: A surprise prowess for straight-ahead warmth and unfettered compassion.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | Q3 2020 Issue.