It’s Monday evening, Sept. 10, when Gillian Welch calls from Los Angeles for an interview after a weekend of phone-tag. She’s in the midst of a hectic stretch, trying to squeeze in some time with her parents and sister (who live in Los Angeles) while preparing to tape The Tonight Show with Jay Leno the following day. Welch and her longtime partner, David Rawlings, have previously played Conan O’Brien’s show, and Welch joined Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris on Late Night with David Letterman during the O Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon earlier this year. “But this’ll be the biggest late-night thing that Dave and I have done,” she says, clearly looking forward to Tuesday’s agenda.

But that morning–like the rest of the country–they awoke to find that everything, everywhere, had changed. So Welch and Rawlings packed up their belongings, canceled their flight plans and rented a car, then headed out for Interstate 40 and drove the 2,000 miles back to their Nashville home. In relative terms, Welch’s song, “I Dream A Highway,” which closes her new album Time (The Revelator), is the popular-music equivalent of a cross-country drive, its verses winding through desolate landscapes and haunting visions both real and imagined, its chorus a spiritual search for the road home: “I dream a highway back to you, love.”

It is the final breath on one of the year’s finest albums–one that stands to be regarded as a classic in years to come–and, in a sense, reflects the essence of how long that trip must have been. Clocking in at 14 minutes and 40 seconds, “I Dream A Highway” sums up its preceding content in a manner that recalls Bob Dylan’s 11-minute “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” the concluding track on his landmark 1966 double album Blonde On Blonde (it’s the lone song on that album’s fourth side). The similarity is not lost on Welch; plans are in the works for her record to be issued on vinyl in a few months as a double-album gatefold, with “I Dream A Highway” taking up all of side four.

Perhaps more remarkable than the song itself is how it was recorded. “That was the first time we’d played it,” Welch says of the night they spent in Nashville’s hallowed Studio B, a long-dormant room where countless country records of the 1950s and ’60s were made. Before recording the song that night, they’d never even rehearsed the tune from start to finish.

“It’s one of the strangest studio experiences I have ever had–getting that song on tape, and then trying to assess what we had, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Welch recalls. It was an intensely emotional experience as well: Earlier that day, she and Rawlings had visited ailing legendary country/folk singer and fiddler John Hartford (who died of cancer in June). “We spent the day with John and were just completely drained, as only a tragic situation like that can just kick your ass. We went and got some food, and then we went into the studio and cut that song. We’d been waiting until we thought it was the right time. And that was the day.”

If “Highway” is the album’s emotional culmination, its equally evocative bookend is the opening track, “Revelator,” a six-minute meditation set to an ageless, aching melody that seems to imprint a Doppler-effect perspective on the passage of time. (That’s a shot-in-the-dark interpretation Welch would probably just as soon steer clear of.) “I don’t really like talking about the songs so very much,” she admits later in our conversation, but goes on to acknowledge the kinship of the album’s first and last tracks.

“You could either put ‘Revelator’ at the hub, or you could put ‘I Dream A Highway’ at the hub,” she says. You could make a case for either one. And then everything else kind of radiates out from that.”

The spokes in the wheel include other tunes that are connected within themselves, most notably “April The 14th Part 1” and “Ruination Day Part 2.” Musically, the songs are very different–the first a melancholy ballad, the second a dark blues ditty–but the subject matter is largely identical: a rumination on three events that all occurred on April 14 (Lincoln’s assassination, the sinking of the Titanic, and–as cited by Woody Guthrie in his song, “Dust Storm Disaster”–the date that ushered in Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl era).

A line from “April The 14th, Part 1”–“I wished I was in a rock and roll band”–seems to beget the track that follows it, “I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll” (taken from a live performance at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium), while another lyric from “April The 14th” shows up later in “I Dream A Highway.” While it might go too far to call Time (The Revelator) a concept album, its songs clearly reveal an uncommon degree of interconnection.

Partly, this reflects the process of how the album came together. “They all kind of got written at the same time,” Welch says of the songs. “At one point, a line would turn up in a song, and maybe it was in another song, but I wasn’t sure that that other song would ultimately live. And it just turned out that a number of these songs that were sort of growing up contemporaneously–they all lived. And that’s what kind of gave the album its focus and its intent. So, we just left it.

“Let me put it this way: It didn’t seem like a better album by axing stuff that seemed to have too much common ground–they seemed to make it better.”

Indeed, that focus is largely what qualifies Time (The Revelator) as Welch’s first great album, after a couple of considerably good ones. Although she’d been previously introduced to roots-music audiences by Emmylou Harris, who covered Welch’s “Orphan Girl” on her acclaimed 1995 disc Wrecking Ball, she didn’t make her debut until 1996’s Revival (on the now-defunct Almo label).

Revival and its 1998 follow-up, Hell Among The Yearlings, besides establishing Welch’s talent as a writer working in classic folk and country forms, also introduced Rawlings as one of the most talented acoustic instrumentalists of his generation. Both records were produced by T Bone Burnett, who later tapped the duo for inclusion on the surprise success on the country charts this year: the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Even without airplay on commercial country radio stations, O Brother‘s bluegrass and old-timey sounds continue to outsell mainstream country’s superstar acts of 2001.

Welch and Rawlings ultimately are interested in more than just re-creating country’s past, however. And on Time (The Revelator)–the first release on Welch’s own label, Acony Records–they firmly cast aside any lingering notions of mere traditionalism: The album has as much in common with the darker explorations of Neil Young as with the fundamental bluegrass of Ralph Stanley. There are still moments that lean toward the latter–notably “Red Clay Halo,” the one song left over from earlier days that made it onto the new album–but for the most part, their songwriting has progressed to assume a much more personal identity.

And for Welch and Rawlings, who operate as a duo and record live (with no overdubs), the songwriting is central to establishing such an identity. “We don’t hire a different band, and we don’t put different instruments on stuff,” she explains. “So all of the new juice just comes off the songs for us.”

Their onstage persona follows suit; Welch and Rawlings perform without any accompanying musicians, which focuses the attention directly on the songs. It might be a bit much, though, to expect them to perform “I Dream a Highway” every night.

“We did it as our second encore at the Fillmore [in San Francisco], and that’s the only time thus far that we’ve done it,” Welch says of the epic. “We weren’t even sure, really, that we could do it that first time, but we wanted to try it. We told everyone that the show was over and that they could go home, but that we were gonna play one more song, and they could stay if they wanted to,” Welch added with a laugh.

“But we’ll probably play it somewhere on the Southeast tour. We need to try it again.” EndBlock