The Dave Rawlings Machine hitches new songs to folk traditions

TEAMWORK: “To us, a song is a song,” says Dave Rawlings of his work with longtime partner Gillian Welch. “Gillian and I, as performers, have different strengths, and we try to tailor the songs a little bit. Let’s make it a little more rambunctious, in my case, so I have more to dig into. We’d arrange them differently if Gillian sang them.” Photo by Henry Diltz

“We’ve only made one video … we’re not really video people,” says singer-songwriter Dave Rawlings. But the one he made, with longtime partner and collaborator Gillian Welch, is the just-released visual companion to “The Weekend,” the lead song from from the new Dave Rawlings Machine album, Nashville Obsolete. The tour for that album brings Rawlings, Welch and their band to The Orange Peel Tuesday, Nov. 24.

“I hit the weekend end, just like a freight. I got there early, I couldn’t wait,” Rawlings sings on the video while he and Welch load the ’65 Chevy Impala they first toured in. Then they drive from Nashville to the California coast. Dressed in his-and-hers Nudie suits, they visit small-town street corners, diners, empty stretches of highway and finally at the beach. They play the ambling, dusky song on their guitars at every stop. The road trip is real — every mile and a mechanical pit stop — as videographer Reid Long can attest.

“We’ve done that drive enough that all that matters is if we break our record, which is 26 hours and 30 minutes, or something,” Rawlings says. The idea for the video came from the musician’s theory that if you left Nashville just before rush hour on Friday and drove straight though, you could make it to the California coast in time for sunset on Saturday. “Then you could get back in your car and drive back to Nashville in time for work on Monday,” says Rawlings. “It would be the funniest weekend.”

Rawlings is no stranger to the road. He spoke to Xpress while traveling from Billings, Mont., to St. Paul, Minn. (13 hours, 850-plus miles), with Welch. The two met in their 20s at the Berklee College of Music. For years they were billed as Gillian Welch, with her voice at the forefront of the shared project. It wasn’t until 2009 that they released A Friend of a Friend under The Dave Rawlings Machine moniker.

Even now, Rawlings says, it’s not always clear, in the songwriting process, which band a song is for. “With this project, once we had decided that I was going to try to sing a few, then we set out in earnest to try to write some others, and take some other songs that were in progress and fashion them so that they would suit me a little more,” he says. “It can happen that we would get somewhere in the middle of the song with Gill singing it, and I’ll say, ‘It sounds great with you singing it. Let’s not worry about it for this record.’” Everything is a work in progress, he adds.

That mutability not only speaks to Rawlings’ and Welch’s working relationship, but to the folk tradition they’re part of. The duo were featured in the concert film Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis, which edited together live performances, interviews, backstage jams and practice sessions from the T Bone Burnett-produced concert inspired by the titular movie. The chemistry and instant community of the film’s performers is palpable, and Rawlings and Welch’s onstage collaborations with Willie Watson and The Punch Brothers are standouts.

On Nashville Obsolete — which includes contributions from Watson (guitar and vocals), Jordan Tice (mandolin), Brittany Haas (fiddle) and Paul Kowert (bass) — Rawlings blends contemporary Americana sounds with references to the folk songbook. The poignant “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)” name-checks Louis Armstrong’s “The St. James Infirmary.” That locale “has a certain weight. It’s a powerful phrase, even if you’re not familiar with the original song,” Rawlings says.

The title track pulls in the Grateful Dead line, “Goin’ down the road, feelin’ bad,” putting a wistful spin on the lyric. “Because we’re musicians and writers who’ve been very interested in the folk music of America and the shared language that all these songs have, all those songs are together in a big room in our minds,” Rawlings says. “Sometimes we connect something we’re working on to something older because of our love for that language.”

He adds, “I don’t mind making a quick reference to Woody Guthrie or The Grateful Dead or whatever. I like making those connections.” In a twist on that theme, Welch added a line to the gospel chestnut “I’ll Fly Away” for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou, and now that contribution is, if under the radar, part of the historical record of that song.

But Rawlings’ and Welch’s shared career is not going unrecognized. The pair recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at the Americana Music Association’s honors show. “To be included in the group of people they give that award to was amazing,” says Rawlings. At the same time, “It felt premature to us. We both feel like we want to do a lot more writing.”

WHO: The Dave Rawlings Machine
WHERE: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 24, at 8 p.m. $25 advance/$30 day of show

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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