Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch Divine a Future for Homespun Music

In Music Stories by Chris Barrettleave a COMMENT

Singer, guitarist, and composer Dave Rawlings is often associated with his esteemed creative partner Gillian Welch. Welch has a gift for writing and presenting songs that are basic yet potent; Rawlings has a gift, possibly more rare, for harmony vocals and ornamental guitar playing, which has helped to make Welch’s music distinctive and memorable. Rawlings associates Knoxville with a career benchmark event for the duo that took place some decades ago.

“One of our very first times in Nashville we came over to a little church in Knoxville to play a show,” Rawlings recalls, describing the Laurel Theater as most visitors would years ago. “It was before we had a record or before we had anything going on. But I think Tim and Mollie O’Brien had cut ‘Orphan Girl.’ We had gone up into the balcony and were taking a nap, and we heard these young girls, maybe 13 or 14, come into the church and they started singing ‘Orphan Girl’ on the stage.

“We’d never heard anyone else sing a song that Gillian had written before.”

Since that day here, when Welch and Rawlings first realized that they were reaching people through their music in ways they might never fully understand, they have released seven albums together. They share credit for the original compositions. Two of those albums—including Nashville Obsolete, fresh out in September—have been released under the band name Dave Rawlings Machine.

“The Machine tours are interesting for us,” Rawlings says. “We like to sing group harmony. We like to sing three- and four-part harmony, which is something we don’t have the opportunity to do as a duet. That’s all a function of when I’m singing, we both hear the need for a little more bass and a little more color around the edges.”

When performing or recording as Gillian Welch with David Rawlings, Rawlings deftly maneuvers his voice so that it nearly nests with Welch’s, and the two become almost indistinguishable. In that role, he has been compared to both Phil and Don Everly and to Art Garfunkel. Rawlings’ explanation of his approach to harmony is similar to Albert Einstein’s memories of his first notion of relativity, which supposedly arrived as he arranged imaginary shapes in imaginary space.

“There’s a visual component to it for me,” Rawlings says. “As soon as we get our guitars sounding right in a song, I sort of see stuff. I see a landscape.”

When fronting the Machine as lead vocalist, Rawlings projects confidently, in a relaxed and robust musical gait reminiscent of mid-20th-century country music. Harmonizing around Rawlings are Welch, bassist Paul Kowert, and guitarist Willie Watson. (Fiddler Brittany Haas will also be onstage in Knoxville and is present on Nashville Obsolete.)

“The first instrument I tried when I was a kid was a saxophone, and I didn’t take to it,” Rawlings says, further explicating his fondness for layered human voices. “And I realized much later that it was because I don’t really take to instruments that only make one note at a time.

“I remember this day, when I was young and just early in Nashville, I thought I’d made this breakthrough. I was just singing all day and thought, ‘My voice sounds great!’ I’d just sing for hours and loved the sound of it. I was refinishing a floor in this tiny little one-room place I had, and I had this exhaust fan going. And the fan was making a note. And it took me about eight hours to realize that I was just singing along with this note. I realized I was having so much fun because I was making harmony, which is what I love to do.”

Asked to differentiate between the processes that generate Gillian Welch material and Dave Rawlings Machine material, Rawlings answers with an example.

“The songs are always different,” he says. “Gillian starts more songs than I do, and I guess I’d say that I finish more songs than she does. The truest thing is to say that the songs get written every which way and by every conceivable arrangement. There are some songs, like ‘Pilgrim,’ on the new record, that get taken apart and put back together so many times until we finally decided the form that it belonged in. And then there was this whole long period of writing that lyric, getting it to do what we wanted it to do.

“We could talk about that song’s journey for hours. There’s even a clue to it on the record, because the song that leads into it, ‘Candy,’ ends with this melodic phrase—a plagal cadence, they call it. ‘Can-dy.’” He sings to demonstrate, shifting, he says, from the IV chord to the I chord. “And that was the genesis of the song ‘Pilgrim.’ I liked the way our voices sounded doing that little cadence. It just seemed funny that years later, when we were able to put it on a record, that we were able to lap them together. And they’re in the same key so you can hear it.

“One starts where the other one left off.”


Dave Rawlings Machine plays at the Tennessee Theatre (604 S. Gay St.) on Wednesday, Nov. 25, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $31.50-$36.50. 

Chris Barrett's Shelf Life alerts readers to new arrivals at the Lawson McGhee Library's stellar Sights and Sounds collection, along with recommendations and reminders of staples worthy of revisiting. He is a former Metro Pulse staff writer who’s now a senior assistant at the Knox County Public Library.

Share this Post