In the opening track from her debut album, California-raised folk singer Gillian Welch is an orphan girl who wanders the lonely road of life without any family to keep her company, but she looks forward to meeting them "at God's table" in heaven someday. Welch, who isn't particularly religious, was inspired to write this while she listened to an old Stanley Brothers tune in her car. At the time, she was an innkeeper at the Lyric Springs Country Inn in Nashville. She brainstormed the rest of the lyrics while she did her cleaning duties around the property.
Welch isn't really an orphan, but she was adopted by Ken and Mitzie Welch, a pair of entertainers who wrote music for the popular sketch-comedy series The Carol Burnett Show. She told Paste magazine about the semi-autobiographical tune in 2016: "I have this weird thing where I write from kind of an unself-conscious place where I don't even know I'm writing something really, really personal when I'm writing it …When I wrote 'Orphan Girl,' I didn't realize that it was autobiographical. Because I'm not an orphan, I'm just adopted... But it's so easy to look at it and go, 'oh that's her story.' Well, it is, but I wasn't setting out to do that."
Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings were singing around Nashville when they caught the attention of Alison Krauss's manager, who then recommended the duo to Almo Records. When Welch met with the label, she played this song. Almo's own bluegrass duo Tim and Mollie O'Brien were the first to record the tune on their 1994 album, Away Out on the Mountain. Emmylou Harris also covered it on her Wrecking Ball album, which won the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Revival was nominated for the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, but lost to Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad.
Two versions are included on the 20th anniversary album Boots No 1: The Official Revival Bootleg - the original home demo and an updated version in collaboration with Rawlings and Revival producer T Bone Burnett.