Hometown: Austin, Texas
Members: Savannah Welch (guitar, vocals), Kelley Mickwee (mandolin, vocals), Jamie Wilson (guitar, vocals), Liz Foster (harmonica, vocals)
Album: High, Wide & Handsome
For Fans Of: Pistol Annies, Nickel Creek, The Duhks
She’s only 28, but Savannah Welch—who recently formed a twangy all-girl outfit called The Trishas—has a lifetime of extraordinary experiences under her belt. Growing up, it didn’t register that she was the daughter of alt-country royalty—she only knew that her father’s picture-perfect debut, Kevin Welch, provided the soundtrack to her childhood. For several of its chiming classics, she says, “I totally made up dances for, while I was riding in the car seat every day.” Eventually, it dawned on her: Dad was a songwriting genius. “And it’s funny—I’ve questioned myself my whole life,” she adds. “Would I be this much of a fan if I wasn’t his daughter? And I truly think I would be.”
While her older brother Dustin sailed right into music, the Austin-based Welch herself set course for a completely different craft: Acting. And almost immediately, she hit paydirt—a featured-extra part in Quentin Tarantino’s creepy “Grindhouse” feature Death Proof. It wasn’t huge, but it was a great start. “In fact, that should be some kind of Trishas trivia—seeing if you can spot me in the scene,” she chuckles. “But I was in a bar scene, and it was two weeks on set with Tarantino, and we were shooting nights, so we were all nocturnal. So on the weekends we had off, he rented out a local movie theater and he’d just play movies, back to back, and start them at midnight, so that we could all stay on that nighttime schedule. I really learned diligence from him—he’s like a dog with a bone. He keeps his eye on the target and doesn’t let anything get in his way.”
Welch’s resume just kept growing. When she launched her acting career 10 years ago, one of her dreams was to some day appear in an art-house effort from legendary director Terrence Malick. She got her wish. After several auditions for his surreal Tree of Life, she landed a role. But she was never shown a full script. “I knew what my character was, vaguely, and my immediate part in it, but I never knew what the storyline was,” she recalls. “I played a young wife in the ’50s, and I was the next-door neighbor to the family of the protagonist, Brad Pitt. I’m hanging clothes on a clothesline, hosing off my feet in the yard, and a little boy steals a slip from my house and has to return it later—all very dreamy sequences. Even my mom was like ‘I think I saw you…’”
At one point, Welch had fallen asleep in a hammock on set, in full wardrobe and makeup. But she began to sense hushed activity around her, and awoke to find Malick and his crew filming her while she dozed for potential Tree footage. That’s just the way he works, she soon learned. “He’s got such a sharp eye for acting,” she marvels. “He said ‘I never want to see an actor acting.’ He had asked me to walk up this flight of stairs, barefoot, and I thought ‘Surely I need to do something, some kind of action,’ so I stopped and just dusted the bottom of my foot off, like I’d stepped on something. But afterwards, in the most quiet, polite voice, he said ‘Well, that was really good. And we’re going to do it again, but you don’t have to do that thing with your foot.’ It was a conscious actor decision, it wasn’t natural, and he caught it.”
Welch has wrapped another couple of pictures that will soon see release—Spring Eddy and Deep in the Heart, already making the rounds at festivals. So far, there’s been only one small casting snafu—when she screen-tested earlier this year for an upcoming Harry Connick, Jr. Christmas vehicle called When Angels Sing. “They ended up calling me later that day, saying ‘We don’t think you’re right for this role. But we’d like to cast your band instead.’ So The Trishas got to do this part where we’re carolers and Harry comes to the door, then slams it. They gave us two takes and we were done for the day, but I got to shake Harry’s hand—he was a really cool guy.”
As Welch tells it, The Trishas was merely a happy accident. “I kind of backed my way into this band, and it’s been a huge gift, but it was not in the plans at all,” she says of the quartet, which just issued its 15-track hickory-smoked debut High, Wide & Handsome. It all started back in January of 2009, when she attended a MusicFest tribute to Kevin, as backing vocalist for her brother’s group. The promoter invited her to trill one of her dad’s catalog classics, and at first she declined—the prospect of singing to her father in the front row was just too terrifying.
But mandolin-strumming Kelley Mickwee wanted to perform a Kevin Welch duet, guitarist Jamie Wilson was there, minus her band, and harmonica-playing Liz Foster was interested in teaming up, as well. Someone suggested that they assemble as a group, safety-in-numbers style, so—with Savannah on six-string—they worked up versions of “Satan’s Paradise” and “Too Old to Die Young.” And they wound up stealing the show. “‘Too Old’ was a song my dad wrote when I was four, and it’s essentially a prayer to get to watch your children grow up to see what they become,” she explains. “So us singing that in four-part harmony around one mic? Everyone in the room was crying by the end of the song. And we didn’t really expect that at all—it was bizarre. Even the rocker guys with their skull jewelry and bandanas were weeping, and the photographer up front had to put his camera down, his shoulders were shaking so much. And I didn’t dare look at my dad—I wouldn’t have been able to get through the song if I’d tried to look at him.”
The Trishas trooped offstage and were instantly mobbed. They had booking offers, Welch says, “and everybody was like ‘You guys need to do this! Be a girl band!’ And we were like ‘Ha ha, very funny. That’s flattering, but No. Being in a girl band is our worst nightmare!’ And I said ‘I am not in the music business—I’ve got an acting career I’m trying to get off the ground!’” Just for fun, they agreed to play a couple of experimental dates, and the Trishas die was cast. Next thing they knew, they were writing and recording High, Wide & Handsome, where each girl sings lead on at least three songs, and then trades off on verse with their fellow Trishas on the rest. Welch—who only recently tackled composing in earnest—co-penned the fiddle-buttressed “Cheaters Game” and the wah-oohed breakup ballad “Over Forgiving You,” which stand tall alongside her fellow Trishas’ work, like “Strangers,” “Rainin’ Inside,” “Mother of Invention” and the honey-harmonied hoedown “Liars & Fools.” Writing the album in Austin and Nashville, with old hands like Bruce Robeson and Jim Lauderdale chipping in, Welch says, “was like going back to school for us.”
The Trishas have gathered so much momentum, they just can’t stop—they’ve even been invited to play San Francisco’s prestigious Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival this year. Personally, Welch had to draw her auditioning brakes over the past few months—she just gave birth to a son, Charlie, and she and her significant other have just relocated to Dallas, while her band remains rooted in Austin. But she found time to guest on her dad’s latest disc, the brilliant Patch of Blue Sky comeback. And she’s taken the lessons he’s taught her to heart. What did Kevin Welch teach his Renaissance daughter? “The main word that comes to mind is ‘integrity’,” she concludes. “And ‘truth.’ To just write from a lace of truth, and not what sounds good. Just write conversationally—don’t try to get too fancy.
“Now I’ll sit down to write, and I can almost feel Dustin, my dad, Joe Ely and Steve Earle—all the guys I was really inspired by—and it’s almost like they pull up their chairs right behind me and go ‘Really? You’re just gonna let that line ride?’”