Gala event tribute speeches are often so much fluff—in the right hands, however, they ascend to the level of the poetic. On Wednesday night in Nashville, Robyn Hitchcock's paean to his longtime friends and collaborators Gillian Welch and David Rawlings hit that high mark. Handing them a Lifetime Achievement prize at the Americana Honors and Awards, Hitchcock wove a tale that was also a dream history of American roots music itself. It was so good we decided to publish it. Do they give awards for awards show speeches? The man in the polka-dot shirt deserves one.
"We live, we die. Our earthly remains become compost from which eventually new bones may sprout; some demented gasoline for an as yet unsoiled future. We live and we die, but unless we drown in our own progress, or are pulverized by a whimsical asteroid, our culture goes on forever. Aside from expressing her or his response to the shock of existence, the artist gets to embed themselves in that culture: to become part of our own psychic compost.
"The artists we honor here tonight are a distillation of many before them, and of their contemporaries too. The deeper your roots, the broader your branches. Jimi Hendrix, the Louvin Brothers, the Pixies, Emmylou & Gram, the Stanleys and the Alpha Omega that is Bob Dylan are all present and roosting in their songs. Yet they sound like none of them.
"They've distilled so much of what America herself has distilled musically, time out of mind from the lake of mirrors that goes so deep you can't distinguish anything. Their alchemy has refined it into something so simple that nobody ever thought of it before, and now they're being openly copied by their many admirers.
"Like a jewel they have many facets. They may appear as an old time Appalachian pair, stood by a wooden wagon. Or as '90s indie rockers, finding the essence of a Radiohead song. Or they may strike you as a jam band. I've seen barefoot kids Dead-dancing to them in Golden Gate Park. She: the rhythm section, hair flowing like a Munch painting, slumped in spent ecstasy over her guitar. He: spinning out a cascade of notes from beneath his Freewheelin' Franklin hat, like an oddly sober Jerry Garcia.
"They are two beings in one entity. They are what John and Yoko might have been if they'd both played the guitar. They are whom I turn to for late night insomnia texting, for three-hour conversations about Dylan, for cover artwork and for high grade hoots in West L.A. Ladies and gentlemen, they are Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings."
We too have been longtime fans of Gillian and David. Here's the duo performing a Tiny Desk concert back in 2010: