But the foundation of the roots music revival currently flourishing with those bands was laid when the soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" became the surprise smash of 2001, set aloft by the gorgeous, plaintive voice of Nashville-based Gillian Welch, who also served as associate producer on the project.
Video: "Miss Ohio," Gillian Welch
Now, eight years after her last album, 2003's "Soul Journey," Welch returns with "The Harrow and the Harvest," out June 28 on her own Acony Records, and she's ready to rejoin the ranks of the roots artists that she inspired. "We're definitely flying the flag," says the artist, who is just back from a touring run with Buffalo Springfield."She's a core artist in the genre," Acony GM Lori Condon says. "With the success of Mumford and the Avetts, people are more accustomed to hearing banjos and acoustic guitars today. That should help people get ready for what they'll hear with Gillian.
"In truth, Welch never left. Without an album of her own, Welch's name continued to grow through collaborations with Conor Oberst, Old Crow Medicine Show, Solomon Burke and the Decemberists (on that band's chart-topping "The King Is Dead"). So while Welch's "core group of fans are very passionate and patient," as Condon puts it, "we want to find those people who heard her with the Decemberists, or Conor or Ryan Adams. How well that translates into record sales is the wild card."
That "The Harrow and the Harvest," Welch's fifth album in 15 years, was announced only one month before its release wasn't an accident. "We're swimming upstream, but we wanted to generate excitement by condensing that period," Condon says.
The hurried release comes with a sigh of relief for Welch -- no more waiting -- especially considering "The Harrow and the Harvest" nearly didn't happen. Working with longtime musical partner David Rawlings, Welch struggled to pull the project together.
"We just didn't like the songs we were writing," she says. "We probably wrote two or three records' worth of songs in this interim, but we didn't have the heart to put them out. It was a disappointment to ourselves. Nobody wanted a record out more than we did."
The stilted writing sessions were broken up by tours, but Welch felt the strain. "I wish I could say we took a six-year vacation then wrote the album, but it's not true," she continues. "We basically spent eight years of misery."
Welch's camp at Acony couldn't help but notice-especially as Welch and Rawlings are the only active artists on the label, which they co-founded in 2001. As Acony continued to handle Welch's touring, back catalog sales and merchandise, Condon grew concerned.
"They're such amazing songwriters; what if they weren't finishing songs that were indeed fantastic? Ultimately, we had to trust that when the songs were finished, it'd all come together," Condon says. "But there was a while when every year I was saying we'd have a new Gillian record in the third quarter."
An inspired performance at the October 2010 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival pushed Welch and Rawlings literally back to the drawing board. "We came back with a dry erase calendar, and we wrote that we needed a new song every week," Welch says. "And we held ourselves to it." The duo began blasting out songs; by January, the 10 that appear on the album were written. By February, they were recorded, almost as if the previous eight years had been a daydream.
The result may be the rawest and dustiest of this year's crop of roots music: a completely acoustic set, each song lovingly stripped naked, with whispered harmonies, Rawlings' lullaby guitar and Welch's sad-eyed melodies. It's a record for slowly sipping a strong drink at dusk, for remembering bittersweet and forgotten loves. To Welch, "The Harrow and the Harvest" is a testament of strength, an affirmation.
"We realized that there's noting else we want to do. Only people absolutely committed to making music would've persevered. We're lifers," she says. "There's comfort in knowing that. This is what I do."