The Gillian Welch Diaries


I know better than to listen to Gillian Welch.

I know better, because Gillian takes me back to my past. Back when my name was Peggy and I worked at Lou’s diner; balancing three plates of eggs on each arm as I brought all those white, weathering politicians their breakfasts. I drink black coffee in the morning, washing down all my sorrows — when I’m drinking either coffee or whiskey I can forget my addiction to morphine and my ex-husband Jimmy who died in war. I can forget all the miscarriages; all the no-good cheating louses who’ve drifted through my diner since then. I’m just making pies, serving eggs, trudging home at night with my hands stuck in my coat pockets and my chin up.

And then, I remember that none of those things actually happened to me.

I remember that my proximity to historical heartbreak is debatable, that I’m young and that not everyone is buying little baby clothes. But, oh Gillian. YOU KNOW JUST HOW TO TUG AT MY RAW CIVIL WAR HEART STRINGS. Gut me like a fish, please.

I call this the Gillian Effect. Although I adore singer/musician/master lyricist Gillian Welch, in order to appear emotionally stable, I had to develop some road rules.

1. Do not listen to Gillian before a job interview.

2. Do not listen to Gillian before a date

3. Do not listen to Gillian around friends who are insecure about their boyfriends loving/cheating on them.

I have never been a particularly big country music fan, except as it pertains to soulful middle-aged women. Next to Gillian’s Emotional PhD, Taylor Swifts emotional range looks like an 8th grader (not that I care: I still listen to Taylor).

The song “Miss Ohio” has the capacity to casual steamroll over my heart, running it on a heavy cycle through the washing machine as it whacks against the side and comes out, at last, the size of a stunted pea. I cry. Every time.

Once, at a wedding, I was standing innocently by the wine tent when the band started playing the song. Instantly, by virtue of the song, I was vulnerable to any kind of feelings. The Gillian Effect is like alcohol. I don’t remember having the urge to go make out in a field, but that must have been a subconscious desire because when the only other single guest at the wedding (a bespeckled man who apparently liked to kayak) came over; making out in a field seemed a prompt and logical task. While the band crooned the refrain — Yeah, she wants to do right but not right now — he put his hand around my waist in a way that made it seem both small and infinite.

That’s the thing about waists. I don’t mean the size of a waist was infinite (Can you even imagine? That would be so large) but that intimate act of circling it — like when you trace your finger around the neck of a bottleneck over and over. That’s why it feels good; like you could whistle across the top of that bottle and a low, hollow sound would come out. Promptly, we left the band area. This, however, is not some loose metaphor: he seduced me with Gillian Welch and we walked a half-mile out in the grass and necked messily underneath the stars.

“That’s so romantic.” my friends said when I told them. They were picturing a country song.

But it hadn’t been. Neither the Kayak Man or the romance had anything going for it, except that a Gillian Welch song was playing. But she dreams of highways! She knows hard times! She gets me. I woke up the next morning, a little embarrassed and with tall grasses still stuck between my shoulder blades. We did not exchange information. I added another rule:

4. Do not listen to Gillian Welch at weddings.

Though called the Gillian Effect, you can cross-match it with its close cousins; the Emmylou Effect and the Patty Effect (and the Patsy Effect, sometimes but not always). The Effect occurs mostly commonly when I chance upon silver-haired women in their 50’s who are likely wearing boots and stone necklaces. They might be in an Antiques store buying a dream catcher, or in Trader Joes buying tea. They might be working at the DMV. But I’ll look at them and feel wisdom oozing out and I just want to be near it; cast in the wide, rich net of years I am not close to. Inexplicable desires, like learning to make pottery and writing memoirs and buying cast-iron cookware, descend. I suppose there is some folklore to this; some subliminal gender mythology. But all I can do is stare.

“Oh damn.” I think, with surges of unjustified solidarity. “She’s really lived.”

You don’t feel depressed, exactly. Just weirdly resolute, like life is very complicated and troubling and you’ve got to prepare to be maybe happy, like trying to gather up the energy to go to a party when it’s dead winter. It’s really cold outside; maybe there will be warm drinks and a couch and your favorite song waiting, after 20 minutes of walking. Well, maybe.

How do you write a tribute to Gillian Welch? Not very easily, or well. But I’ll start with this Effect, this ability to transport. When I listen to her, I am not preoccupied merely with how I feel, because she delivers a prophecy and in it, I, the listener become a different character—deeply mythologized, receding into an apron past, all the secluded weight and joy of womanhood on my shoulders for three or four minutes. Let’s call that a success. 

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