Ghosts in the machine
Dave Rawlings and crew keep sounds of old Nashville alive
The title of the new Dave Rawlings Machine album, Nashville Obsolete, might seem like a commentary on country music old and new and what qualifies as Nashville music these days. After all, the band’s traditional folk/bluegrass-based brand of country could be considered an endangered species in today’s slick pop-rock/new-country era. But Rawlings, who is also known as the songwriting partner and guitarist for Gillian Welch, said he wasn’t making any kind of serious statement with the album title, noting that any views on his sound and current music are a very small part of a title with multiple meanings.
“I like the way the word ‘obsolete’ rings with the word ‘machine’” he said in a recent phone interview as he prepared to hit the road for a tour that will be making a stop at the Paradise Performing Arts Center on Tuesday (Oct. 20). “That’s a big part of it for me,” he added. “The phrase ‘Nashville obsolete’ came into our world because [Welch and I] have this basement at the recording studio that we own. We’re always talking about, ‘We should have a store there that sold things that nobody needed anymore and we should call it Nashville Obsolete. And we’ll sell Beta tapes and typewriter ribbons, buggy whips and retaining clips for EMT plate reverb.’ So much of the recording gear we work on, so many of the microphones, the audio tape, it’s all obsolete.
“And it’s a little bit poking fun at ourselves for being around for so long,” Rawlings added. “We kind of feel like we’re from Nashville and we’re obsolete.”
And despite being only seven tracks long, Nashville Obsolete is full and musically rich. It opens with a bit of a stylistic change-up in “The Weekend.” Though still largely acoustic, it has a pop- leaning vocal melody, complete with a “whoa-whoa-whoa” bit. “Short Haired Woman Blues” follows, and echoes a bit of “The House of the Rising Sun” before strings enter the picture and give the song a lovely melodic dimension. Other songs, such as “The Trip” (a Bob Dylan-esque track that clocks in at an epic 10:56), “Candy,” “The Last Pharoah” and “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)” are more austere and faithful to the group’s old-time folk tradition.
The Dave Rawlings Machine started to take shape a couple of years or so before the 2009 release of its debut album, A Friend of a Friend, after Rawlings and Welch began to like the way his voice had taken on a softer tone when he sang lead on songs that seemed better suited to a male vocal. He and Welch decided it would be awkward to try to mix a segment where Rawlings took center stage during Welch’s solo shows. Fans were coming, after all, to hear Welch sing. So, the idea of forming the Machine as its own entity took shape.
The presence of Welch as both a co-writer with Rawlings and as a musician in the Machine points to the fact that Rawlings doesn’t see a big difference between the music in the Machine repertoire and their solo work. In the end, both of the duo’s projects are an extension of the kind of songs Rawlings and Welch have written since they met as students at Berklee College of Music in Boston about 25 years ago. Joining Rawlings and Welch for the tour are the core musicians who played on the new album—bassist Paul Kowert (of the Punch Brothers), guitarist/backing vocalist Willie Watson (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show) and fiddle player Brittany Haas.
And for the live shows, everyone’s material is brought to the stage. “All of the Machine shows, we play some Gillian songs,” Rawlings said. “When Willie Watson is out there, he has usually done a number or two as well. And we’ll have those two Machine albums, and then there’s a vast library of shared folk and traditional material that we all kind of know. A lot of that stuff ends up working itself into the shows.”