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Gillian Welch thrives in an old-time niche

Gillian Welch is pretty sure she should keep her day job. Last Sunday, from her hotel room in St. Paul, Welch chatted on the phone about the previous night's stint on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" radio program with her musical partner David Rawlings.

"They made us act and put us in a skit," she says dryly, "but I told them I would only do it if I didn't have to act that much. So we sang as the Slocum Family." The Slocums, it turns out, were Keillor's comical vision of a northern Minnesota family of musicians who are constantly drugged up and therefore bungle country classics. Of the blustery Minnesota weather, Welch's character drawls to Keillor: "You wake up on a morning in February and drink a cup of instant coffee, and it makes a person ready for Percodan, believe me."

Shakespeare it's not, but these days, Welch doesn't have to worry about a second career. Bolstered by a new album, "Soul Journey," and an opening spot on Norah Jones's last tour, Gillian Welch is in demand. She and Rawlings play Avalon tomorrow night.

Part of her ascent started here in Boston. She and Rawlings, a skilled if famously quiet musician who matches Welch's low-key stage demeanor, met as performance majors at Berklee College of Music in the early '90s.

"We met at an audition for a country band," she says. "This was when there were probably a hundred jazz bands at Berklee, and 10 million heavy metal bands." Even then, Welch, a California native who tires quickly of questions about how a California girl can interpret old-timey music, leaned toward leaner, stripped-down folk idioms.

"Some of the chicks would bring in songs by Pam Tillis and Tanya Tucker, but I'd do songs by Lefty Frizzell and Roger Miller."

Welch's new album has garnered mostly good reviews, although some fans, namely folk purists, have grumbled about its direction toward a fuller, meatier sound. Drums and electric bass on a Gillian Welch album? "Well, on some level, it should be a departure from other albums," she says. "Everything's not supposed to sound the same, you want it to reflect change and growth."

Welch's contributions to the "O Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack were big news at the time. She moved on with the stark, Grammy-nominated "Time (The Revelator)," and worked with everyone from Ralph Stanley to Ani DiFranco. She and Rawlings have recorded numerous covers for other people's albums, not their own.

"I only do covers if I relate to the song or if it's one I wish I had written," she says, a list which might include songs by Gram Parsons ("Hickory Wind") or Greg Brown ("Summer Evening").

Welch is an artist who is frequently covered by other musicians. She credits Emmylou Harris as an early champion of her songs. Joan Baez is a fan, too. On her latest release, "Dark Chords on a Big Guitar," Baez covers Welch's "Elvis Presley Blues" and "Caleb Meyer," a song that's perfect for Baez's repertoire.

"Well, I do love a good murder ballad, you know," Baez says in an interview before recording a segment for the TV program Soundstage in Chicago. "I guess [the singer-songwriters I cover] are all different. What's interesting about Gillian, though, is that she's comfortable with the niche that she has created and seems like she's completely from another time -- the way she writes, her clothes, everything. And she's from California."

As a duo, Rawlings and Welch are a perfect musical match, a modern-day Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. She often performs in black cowboy boots and a dress, while Rawlings, in a dark suit, resembles one of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. Their stage rapport is understated, often intimate as they shoot each other knowing glances and whisper between songs.

Although Welch is usually billed as a solo artist, Rawlings is certainly her equal as a songwriter and producer. Welch has been known to say that they play in a band called Gillian Welch.

Then there's Welch's early self-description of herself and Rawlings as "American primitive" artists. It's a phrase she lifted from bluegrass virtuoso John Fahey's label for his distinctive fingerpicking style. "I don't know if that really applies to us anymore; I guess we're more American modernists now. We're feeling kind of sophisticated these days."

(Gillian Welch and David Rawlings play Avalon, 16 Lansdowne St., tomorrow at 7 p.m.; Tickets, $18.75; call 617-423-6398.)

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