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Grammy-winner Gillian Welch draws inspiration from Thomas Wolfe in music

Gillian Welch
Songwriter Gillian Welch performed in Hill Hall on Tuesday after she received the Thomas Wolfe Prize. Photo by Mark Seliger.

This year's Thomas Wolfe Lecture took on a unique form — a live concert from a Grammy Award-winning recording artist.

Each year, UNC’s Department of English and Comparative Literature awards the Thomas Wolfe Prize to honor the legacy and literary spirit of Wolfe, one of UNC’s most famous graduates. Along with receiving prize money and a medal, recipients of the award are invited to speak to students along with the general public as part of an annual lecture series. 

Gillian Welch, this year’s award winner, performed Tuesday night to a sold-out crowd at Moeser Auditorium in Hill Hall. Welch and her partner, guitarist/singer David Rawlings, played songs from their 20-plus year career. They said many of their song choices were influenced by conversations that they had with students throughout the day. In between songs, they told stories about their origins in what they jokingly referred to as the “lecture” portion of the event. 

The performance was followed by a question and answer session with audience members, many of whom had traveled significant distances to attend the event, showering Welch with praise and detailing how her music had profoundly impacted their lives.

Welch’s unique style, which incorporates country, folk and other forms of Americana music, and relies heavily on storytelling, is a large part of why she was the first-ever songwriter chosen to receive the prize. Many of the people who spoke at the event compared Welch’s ability to create characters and tell moving stories to Wolfe's. 

“Gillian Welch writes lyrics with the emotional force and cadence of Thomas Wolfe’s prose,” Rebecca Godwin, president of the Thomas Wolfe Society, said. 

The weight of the honor is not lost on Welch, who lists Wolfe as one of her biggest literary influences.

“It’s very personally meaningful for me to receive this award because of what Thomas Wolfe meant to me,” she said. 

Earlier in the day, Welch and Rawlings spoke to creative writing students about their songwriting process, their own musical histories and the often-difficult process of navigating a career in the creative arts.

Notably, the Department of English’s choice of a songwriter as the recipient for this year’s prize coincides with the recent development of a songwriting track within the creative writing minor. With the implementation of the program, students who share Welch’s passion for songwriting will now be able to directly apply her words of wisdom in the classroom.

“It did seem a very apt time to honor someone who tells story through song,” said Susan H. Irons, an English professor who serves as director of the Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture. “Gillian Welch is so incredibly gifted with the narrative.”

This gift was not lost on Tuesday night’s crowd. Welch and Rawlings received a lengthy standing ovation from the audience, many of whom were visibly moved by the performance.

When English professor Bland Simpson introduced the duo, he spoke about the profound effect of their music.

“Their words and music have found their way into our hearts and minds,” he said, “and, I dare say, our souls.”

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