Dave Rawlings steps into the spotlight
By Michael Witthaus firstname.lastname@example.org
Fortunately, I wait until the end of the interview to ask David Rawlings about his next record with longtime partner Gillian Welch. He reports that with luck, it will be finished by summer and out by end of year.
“If I wasn’t on the phone, I’d be working on it right now. I’ve been standing outside the studio for a half hour, enjoying the summer weather and talking to you.”
Perhaps it’s a good idea to move things along at this point. It’s been seven years to the day since Soul Journey, the last Gillian Welch record, and I don’t want be responsible for slowing down progress.
“Go make some music,” I tell him and hang up politely.
On the other hand, Rawlings has his own role in the delay — not that anyone is complaining. He released his first solo album last November and he’s been touring the country as the Dave Rawlings Machine, a show that stops at The Music Hall in Portsmouth on Friday, June 4.
A Friend of a Friend was recently nominated for four Americana Music Awards. Patty Griffin, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller and the Carolina Chocolate Drops are also up for an award, so Rawlings is in good company.
“For a record we were even pretty hesitant to put out, it’s a lot of validation,” he said. “Who knows how it will all work out, but as they say, it’s an honor just to be nominated.”
He had a lot of talented help, led by Welch, members of Old Crow Medicine Show, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers keyboard player Benmont Tench. The record blends music from Rawlings’ key influences (Neil Young, the Grateful Dead) with remakes of songs he co-wrote or produced, and new material written with Welch.
The project began in mid-2006 with a few new tunes that the pair felt would better fit Rawlings as a vocalist. After unsuccessful attempts at recording them, they booked a set at the Newport Folk Festival under Rawlings’ name. He says the appearance “was really more of a disguise to play some new Gillian material … without having to play her whole show. It gradually bloomed into a whole record.”
To prepare for Newport, they did a few secret shows in a Providence coffeehouse. “You just had to write your name on the calendar to get a booking,” Rawlings recalled. “It held maybe eight people total.”
The first time he walked on stage alone, Rawlings launched into “Monkey and the Engineer,” a Jessie Fuller song he’d first heard on the 1980 Grateful Dead live album Reckoning.
“I thought it was a funny theme, to sing a song about a monkey that watched someone do something for a really long time and then decided that they knew how to do it too,” he said. “It was a little bit of an inside joke.”
Though he didn’t plan to play the song more than once, it would end up on the album when Rawlings and his cohort sang during a warm-exercise to test microphone levels and were pleasantly surprised. “The first take sounded pretty good,” he said. “By the time we got a few more takes in, we just hit it, we got a really nice performance from it. So that song kind of picked itself as much as anything.”
A pensive rendition of “I Hear Them All,” originally co-written with Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show for their Big Iron World record, is another of the record’s highlights. It’s a protest song in the spirit of Woody Guthrie and the Weavers.
“I’m a big fan of that early ’60s music,” Rawlings said. “I’ve always thought that stuff had a wonderful power to it. Once we realized that was the direction it was heading, Ketch and I were both pretty excited to have one on the line that we could sort of reel in, which is how I feel a lot of the time about writing.”
“Ruby,” which opens A Friend of a Friend, leads with Rawlings’ high lonesome voice and features gorgeous four-part harmonies, but it’s a quintessential Gillian/David song — spare, haunting and evocative. Over the past 15 years, the pair’s music has become a genre unto itself, a sound cast in amber driven in no small part by Rawlings’ one-of-a-kind guitar, a 1935 Epiphone flat top.
“It’s a really interesting thing, that guitar has turned into my voice,” he said. “I’ve found a few others that were made right around the same month, with very similar serial numbers of the same Epiphone, but that’s the magic, that’s the one that I’ve played for all these years. It’s really part of me at this point, and I’ll be bringing it out on stage. It’s getting pretty worn, I’m afraid it’s going to look like Trigger in a few years.”
For the Portsmouth show, Rawlings will be joined by Welch, Morgan Jahnig and Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show, and the Punch Brothers’ Gabe Witcher, an exceptional fiddle and guitar player who’s also toured with Loggins & Messina.
“Gillian and I usually play just the two of us, so it’s been a thrill to be up there with three other people,” said Rawlings, who compares the experience to the informal jam sessions he’s participated in with Benmont Tench over the years. “I’ve been at parties at his house and got to play with all these great musicians, but to be able to take it on the stage and let people see a little bit of what that’s like is a thrill for Gillian and I, and everyone else.”