A FEW MINUTES WITH… Dave Rawlings
Story and interview by Don Wilcock
Is singer-songwriter and folk guitar picker Dave Rawlings the yin to the 1960s folk scare yang?
Those early artists slavishly copied the archival recordings of indigenous American folk artists from decades earlier. Rawlings and his longtime partner Gillian Welch identify more with the Holy Modal Rounders, the folk music duo of Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber from the Lower East Side of New York City. The Rounders were considered eccentric in the ’60s for their manipulation of the then-sacrosanct folk canon of an earlier era and for inserting what was considered at the time to be extraneous rock influences.
“What makes the Holy Modal Rounders interesting isn’t how close they got, it’s how far they were from what they (were copying),” says Rawlings, who brings his band, the Dave Rawlings Machine to The Egg’s Hart Theatre in Albany on Saturday night (November 7). “When Gillian and I were first starting out and trying to sing like the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers or the Lilly Brothers or whatever other brothers we were deeply listening to and copying, just the fact that Gil was gonna be the melody on top as opposed to the melody of the lower voice, and the fact that we had different music, the stuff was changed,” Rawlings readily admits. “It was changed implicitly and getting any closer (to the original) wouldn’t have made the stuff any better. It would have probably made the stuff worse.”
Today’s folk musicians are much freer in applying their own muse to the foundation of past music, and Rawlings and Welch’s methodology is much closer to that of filmmakers the Coen Brothers and their musical producer T Bone Burnett than it is to the coffeehouse denizens of Greenwich Village or Harvard Square circa 1963. Rawlings and Welch worked with the Coens and Burnett on the Grammy Award-winning Album of the Year soundtrack for “O Brother Where Art Thou,” the 2000 film that single-handedly brought roots music to the masses with a level of influence similar to what “Urban Cowboy” had done for pop-country two decades earlier.
“We’ve been in pretty regular contact with Joel and Ethan (Coen) since the ‘O Brother’ days. We were working in the studio with T Bone for a lot of months, kind of off and on for over a year on that and got to know them then. Since then we’ve remained close, and it’s funny. I actually talked to Joel early on as these songs (from the Dave Rawlings Machine’s new album, Nashville Obsolete) were just starting to take shape, and I thought, ‘God, we’ve got this weird batch of material dealing with odd themes, and I just didn’t think that it was particularly commercial in any way.’
“I called him up and said. ‘What do you guys do when you love stuff that you know you can’t throw out, but you’re not sure what to do with it?’ To expound on that, by the time we got the songs finished and worked them more, they came more around to something I understood that some people would like and why they would like them. But when the songs were a little bit more in their primordial form, they were a little more difficult. You have some like ‘The Trip,’ which was one of the first things that was buttoned up into this 10 to 11- minute-long talking story-song. It’s not really the pop charts we clamored for.
“But we’ve always felt a pretty deep connection with the Coens, even though our career is on a much smaller scale than their’s in a way. There are a lot fewer moving parts – it takes fewer people to do what we do. I think we look at art in a very similar way. I know Joel and Ethan will include things in their films that only the two of them like. I’ve had that conversation with them, and I think that we’ve always treated our music that way, too. You sort of build it so that it touches you in some way.”
I asked Rawlings if the rambling stream of consciousness song “The Trip” was like that. “Yeah, yeah, I mean all of the songs are. They always are,” he readily admits. “The point is you have to make it touch you even though it’s not for you. I can’t listen to my own music like I listen to the music I love, but you have to make it connect for you. You have to make the song move you in some way, and then hopefully it’ll move some other group of people who will be moved. They may not feel the same thing. Obviously, they don’t have the same life experience, but they’ll connect to something. If it connects to you, it’ll connect to somebody else in some way.”
Rawlings and Welch’s inward focus on their often moody stringed music at the expense of commercialism is reflected in how they label themselves and their music. They use Gillian Welch’s name when she’s the lead singer, releasing five albums under her name alone, even though these albums are of equal collaboration. They’ll be performing at The Egg on Saturday night under the name the Dave Rawlings Machine because he sings lead here as well as on two previous albums.
The latest CD, Nashville Obsolete, is a name as odd, obscure and potentially controversial as anything the Coen Brothers ever did. “A lot of people have made me spend a lot of time talking about the title of this record,” says Rawlings. “Its primary function is just to describe the collection, describe the art work, and I like the way the word ‘obsolete’ works with the word ‘machine.’ (Note: Machine comes from Woody Guthrie, who called his guitar a machine and telling the world, “This machine kills Fascists.”)
“We’ve made our home and our studio in Nashville for 20-some years. So I don’t feel uncomfortable appreciating the word ‘Nashville,’ and it connected to a lot of different thoughts also,” Rawlings explains. “There’s parts of it that touch on the music industry and the state of it and parts of it that just touch on the place in our career of having done this for a long time. And there’s part of it that connects to all the changes that have happened in Nashville in the last 10 years.”
This writer agrees with Rawlings that the more enigmatic the title of a record or the name of a band, the better in the long run, because the music fan forever associates the name with a particular product and/or group. Who knows what Dylan meant by Blonde On Blonde, but when we hear that title, we associate it solely with Dylan, that particular LP and the music contained therein.
The duo’s use of Welch’s name alone for their almost two-decade collaboration is a little harder to understand, especially if you’re Dave Rawlings, and you’ve released two records as Dave Rawlings Machine vs. five solely under the Gillian Welch moniker and the only difference in them is that you take the vocal lead on the Dave Rawlings Machine and she takes the vocal lead on Gillian Welch. While easy to explain pragmatically, one has to wonder if it does Rawlings justice in the long run.
He says the decision initially was made for them by the record label. “We had no choice because the record label that was signing us was thinking of it in those terms because some of the folk influence was making inroads into country music at that moment,” he says. “You had Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Nancy Griffith and Emmylou Harris for that matter at the moment.”
When all is said and done, today’s “mistakes” in a jam become tomorrow’s songs. “I try to play something over and over the same way, and it generally changes,” says Dave. “I tend to do it wrong, and I hear something new.”