Ambition in music comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be a different approach on your sophomore album (like the Killers and their unfortunate Springsteen appropriating), or a complete makeover of your sound and image (Talk Talk’s incredible transformation from New Wave also-rans to ethereal jazz-rockers). One of my favorite exercises in ambition is also the simplest—Gillian Welch and David Rawling’s magnificent closer to Time (The Revelator), “I Dream a Highway.”
Clocking in at fourteen and a half blissful minutes, “I Dream a Highway,” on the surface, does not seem to break any new ground. Built around three simple chords, the song never changes its tone or its tempo the whole way through—two acoustic guitars wind their way through the verses and choruses, with Rawlings occasionally firing off one of his trademark fantastic acoustic solos as punctuation. What really raises the song to a height not often reached in acoustic folk music are two factors—the extraordinary length of the song (it doesn’t feel like 14 and a half minutes, but it’s most assuredly no Motown single in length), and Welch’s startlingly beautiful mind-pictures, sung in her wearily gorgeous voice.
Building the verses around both historical metaphors (Johnny Cash’s famous drug-ridden destruction of the Grand Ol’ Opry’s stage sits side by side with the resurrection of Lazarus) and marvelous wordplay (“Drank whiskey with my water, sugar in my tea/My sails in rags, with the staggers and the jags”), Welch constructs a glorious, heart-breaking chorus (“I dream a highway back to you, love / A winding ribbon with a band of gold / A silver vision come and bless my soul”). The song gently, blissfully floats its way through Americana, as heartsick as a Leadbelly song, as poetic as a Dylan song, and as riveting in the last verse as in the first.
Time (The Revelator) has been described by Welch as her “rock and roll” album, meaning that she deliberately wrote songs for a full band, but performed them acoustically with her partner Rawlings as sole accompanist. I’m glad she did—this song could never work with a full band. It deserves its sparse, run-down glory, quietly carrying you on the kind of journey only a truly ambitious song can take you on.
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