If Rayna Gellert seems a preternaturally gifted songwriter, it’s because she’s seen farther into the old songs than most. Growing up in a musical family, Gellert turned to Appalachian old-time music at a young age, becoming a prodigious fiddler and leading a new revival of American stringband music through her work with the acclaimed American roots band Uncle Earl. Through the late nights at music festivals, the kerosene-lit jam sessions in campgrounds, the all-night sessions in a warm kitchen, the old songs have fueled her passion for the music. The Appalachian ballads leave so many parts unknown, so many stories half told, that it’s only natural she’d turn at some point to finishing the stories herself. What she found when she did was that she had an uncommon talent for songwriting that reads both as simple and accessible, but also heartfelt and profound. A great songwriter never overwrites a song, and that’s a lesson Gellert learned from folk song.
With her new album, Workin’s Too Hard, out January 20, 2016 on StorySound Records, she pulls from the tradition, but the songs are all her own and the arrangements are built on a collaboration with Nashville songwriter Kieran Kane (co-producer, mandolin, guitar, vocals). Of the seven songs on this mini album, two are old traditionals reworked by Gellert, and the rest are all original (two co-written with Kane). Each new song looks back on the arcane language of the old songs for lyrical inspiration, but also to Gellert’s life experiences in a modern world. In the vein of other artists like Sam Amidon and Gillian Welch, Gellert’s roots in Americana run so deep that no matter what she writes, it will always have a timeless quality to it.
Featuring multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch (Abigail Washburn, Bobby Bare Jr.) and drummer Jamie Dick (Rhiannon Giddens, Joan Shelley), Workin’s Too Hard was recorded old-school live in one room by engineer Charles Yingling (Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard), giving it a sound as warm, intimate, and deep as the songs themselves. These songs have rolled in the dust of Woody Guthrie, marinated in the moonshine of Dock Boggs, and plucked out an old tune in the vein of Doc Watson. With this album, Rayna Gellert’s managed to make the new sound old and to make the old new again.