Let’s clear up a few things off the top. Singer-strummer Gillian Welch and picker-singer David Rawlings are a two-person band named “Gillian Welch.” At first blush their material sounds traditional, straightforward: pre-WWII country with an Appallachian accent, acoustic instruments tumbling over each other in rustic intricacy, Welch’s voice as cool and abundant as a nameless creek, Rawlings’s voice moving with hers like a waterwheel. Listen closer, though, and they subvert just about every musical and lyrical convention they get anywhere near. Asking questions about “authenticity” means you just don’t get it.
When O Brother Where Art Thou turned alt-country from an underground phenomenon into an international one, Gillian Welch was a star performer on the soundtrack and the subsequent Down From the Mountain concerts, film, and tour. The revivalist atmosphere sometimes found the duo painted into a comfy “jes’ folks” corner by casual listeners, but everybody with ears marked them as a special breed. Rawlings’ angular, dissonant guitar lines and modal harmonies and Welch’s sly use of the structures of rock songwriting fundamentally alter the chromosomes of the trad-folk tropes that give birth to their timeless songs. On the surface they’re musical kin to the Stanley Brothers; under the skin they have just as much in common with Sonic Youth.