It’s too easy to feel good with the Dave Rawlings Machine

From the Big Pink campfire sing-a-long of "Ruby" to the sheer solitude of "I Hear Them All," the Dave Rawlings Machine takes you from Harlem to the San Francisco Bay with an album that could only be made by traversing the highways and rooftops of America.

Going big: Dave Rawlings has long sung harmony with spartan folkstress Gillian Welch. His new album has the roles reversed and features a full band with lavish, clever arrangements. Photo by Mark Seliger.

Rawlings is best known for his long-standing partnership with Gillian Welch, and as the unofficial sixth member of Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS). The guitarist, producer, singer and songwriter has just released the long-anticipated album, A Friend Of A Friend, under the appropriately named Dave Rawlings Machine. Although the machine on this album may be driven by Rawlings and Welch, the gears are made up of OCMS and a handful of L.A. musicians that includes Benmont Tench. 

A Friend Of A Friend seamlessly forges the ghosts of Jesse Fuller and Mississippi John Hurt. It features a country-honk version of the Ryan Adams co-written "To Be Young," and still leaves some familiar Welch/Rawlings landscape for a Conor Oberst/Neil Young medley. To top it off, the great '60s string arranger Jimmie Haskell creates a gorgeous bed of sound on "Bells Of Harlem" and "Ruby," for Rawlings reedy unshaven voice to lie upon.

Xpress caught up with Dave Rawlings on his way up to Washington, D.C.

Describe the moment when you decided that this record was going to be made.
Rawlings:
You know, there were a few moments that contributed to this finally happening. The first one was probably a few years ago when we decided to play a show at the Newport Folk Festival under my name, to try out a few new Gillian songs and not drop them into her whole show. And then while we were rehearsing for that, Gillian and I both noticed that we thought my voice had mellowed out a little, and maybe got a little richer over time, and it seemed a little better than it used to be for singing lead.

I think the next thing that happened was, I played a brief tour with Conor Oberst playing lead guitar. One night one of the opening bands didn't show up and it happened to be a show that Gillian had come up just to watch. Conor asked me if I wanted to open the show and I said, "Well sure." So using his band we played a 40-minute set. It was weird, because the audience didn't seem to even know that I didn't have a record or had never sung any of these songs before.

So, I had some older songs and covers and when a few more songs got written, it seemed like maybe there was enough material for me to start making a record. But it was never a done deal until the moment that there were nine songs and 40 minutes, and we thought, "Well, I guess this is good enough to put out." (laughs)

How do the co-written songs come about, outside of your writing with Gillian?
It depends. Ryan (Adams) started singing "To Be Young" at a party that we were at in my house in Nashville, and we both worked on it right then and there. That was something that happened in the room at the moment, though he definitely sang the first part. "I Hear Them All" is a song that Ketch had started and then we worked on it together. And between Gillian and I, a majority of the time it is something that she had started.

Had I not heard Old Crow's version of "I Hear Them All" first, I would have thought they learned the song from your version, as if it was the original.
Oh that's funny. It's interesting, because when Ketch and I were writing it, I was singing it a lot, and I wasn't finger picking it, but I was singing it gently. I love the version we cut with them, but I did want to make it sound like the first version. So I'm glad that it translated. That's the version you do before you arrange it. It was a strange thing, I had some vision when I thought about going in to record it by myself, that I wanted the microphones to be sideways, as opposed to up and down. I'd seen old pictures and footage of people in the '60s with the mics going sideways with pantyhose around them for windscreens. And I thought, "I want to try and get that sound." So that's what I did. I went to the 7-Eleven and got pantyhose. The guy looked at me really weird and thought I was going to rob a bank.

So what is next between you and Gillian Welch?
Her record is partially done and we're going to get that out in the new year. And then I don't know what we'll do after that. I got a couple things in the can for a new Machine release, so we'll start working on that, and try to hopefully increase the pace at which we've been putting out records quite a bit in the next couple years.

Brian McGee fronts the country-punk outfit Brian McGee and the Hollow Speed.

who: Dave Rawlings Machine
what: Sturdy Americana
where: The Orange Peel
when: Sunday, Nov. 29 (8 p.m. $18/$20. www.theorangepeel.net)

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