There Are Still Struggling Artists

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Rita Braver interviewed Nashville musicians Gillian Welch and David Rawlings for a segment of CBS News Sunday Morning to air March 26.
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It's springtime! The sun is shining. The birds are singing. The forsythia is in bloom. And the whole world looks young. So it's a fitting time to remember that not every youthful being in America is an investment banker or a dot-com mogul or an on-the-make pol.

There are still struggling young artists out there, living in ramshackle houses, subsisting on macaroni and cheese, driving fifth-hand cars and loving every second of it.

Two such souls are Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. They live in Nashville, in a house that looks like it could fall down at any moment. They have a cat. They have some swell old guitars. And, oh, yes, they have a lot of talent.

Gillian writes the songs. David edits, arranges, plays and sings. They've made two CDs, one of which was even nominated for an Emmy. So far, they've had lots of critical acclaim but not much financial success, though they have been able to give up their day jobs.

"I dispatched repairmen on a walkie," Gil recalls, "and I had another job at a bed and breakfast, and I had a job as a kind of ironing woman. In fact, Dave was an ironing woman, too," she chortles.

But now they travel around, doing gigs when they can. Their sound can be as spare and aching as the wind whistling down a West Virginia "holler" or as rollicking as a Saturday night dance.

They laugh at their own "depression" look, and they take delight in strange little things like an old box they found that once was used to store stereoptic slides and now houses their collection of guitar picks.

Those guitars make them happy, too. There's a 1935 Ampliphone Olympic, "the cheapest thing you could get from them in 1935."

Gil and Dave still seemed slightly amazed that they have attracted fans like the legendary record producer T-Bone Burnett, who produced their albums. And they were as excited as little children when they got invited to sing at the Grand Ole Opry.

Of course, that's a story in itself. Though folks there did them the honor of extending the invitation, there are some "country snobs," who of course are not themselves from the country, who have criticized Welch and Rawlings for being "inauthentic." Welch is from LA; Rawlings from Rhode Island.

How, the snobs want to know, can they sing about being down in a coal mine when they haven't ever worked in one? I, of course, wonder if the snobs have heard of Stephen Crane and The Red Badge of Courage, but then how can you hope to educate snobs?

Rawlings has his own response: "What do I do, play Rhode Island music? I play guitar the way I play and it sunds the way it sounds."

So there they are, young and fearless and beautiful and the emblem of everything that spring should bring. And best of all, during the two days I spent with them they never once talked about technology stocks.