Dave Rawlings Machine: Pilgrim’s Progress

Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch dish on the writing of Nashville Obsolete.


At Berklee, he studied under Professor Lauren Passarelli, Berklee’s first female guitar instructor who would also later teach Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent. “Dave already had a lovely musical sensibility when he came to study with me,” she says. “At the time I was one of the only guitar faculty who was also a singer-songwriter. We greatly enjoyed each other’s company. We shared a deep affection for thoughtful, expressive, melodic, guitar players like George Harrison, Pat Metheny, and James Taylor. I loved working with Dave because he was mature, musical, and open to genuine expression.”

  Welch and Rawlings’ first album as Gillian Welch, Revival, came in 1996, which, like Hell Among The Yearlings, was produced by T Bone Burnett. Welch, in particular, was lobbed with some criticism for singing the mountain or murder song but not actually living it, having grown up in Los Angeles and not Appalachia. Now, that seems a comical argument: there are more fiddles in Brooklyn than punk-rock distortion pedals, and modern “Americana” as we know it (which Welch and Rawlings could easily be called founding members of) doesn’t require any sort of Southern birthright for active participation. Just ask Mumford & Sons.

But in the mid-’90s, the trend hadn’t taken off. “When we started doing this – whatever you want to call our early songs,” says Rawlings, “whether they were folksongs or whatever, they were not the obvious path to riches. We just did that because it was what we were interested in.” Things changed around year 2000, when Burnett recruited the duo for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, but perhaps even more so with the release of Time (The Revelator), the third Gillian Welch album, that received rave reviews across the board and scored a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Americana, as we now know it, started to become en vogue, making a sound that had become obsolete no longer so – a trend that only increased in fervor in the past few years as all those things (typewriters, analog machines) became more and more popular. Touring and selling records had afforded Welch and Rawlings the ability to live a decent lifestyle where they could have some artistic freedom, and even purchase Woodland Studios and get Acony up and running. It was music itself, in the streaming era, that was becoming the obsolete object.

“Theoretically, music is obsolete as a commodity,” Rawlings explains. It’s a topic he has a lot to say about, some on and off the record. He doesn’t want to seem too curmudgeonly about it, but he’s concerned. Then again, it also gives him some freedom – Nashville Obsolete is almost as short in song count as an EP, but one of them, “The Trip,” is about eleven minutes in length. It’s a languorous, sing-talk stunner that mentions hatchets, bullet holes and lies, with a line that references cult songwriter Simon Joyner’s Hotel Lives.  Not exactly standard practice when it comes to radio-friendliness.

“If music is no longer a commodity, then I’m not so worried about making a record with seven songs,” he says. “But [Nashville Obsolete] could also be pointed at me. I’m obsolete, and I live in Nashville! I’ve been around long enough that I don’t know what my exact use is.” This makes Rawlings crack up.

To the disappointment of some, Acony has yet to release any music on vinyl, something they’re hoping to change in the near future. “We’re working on it,” explains Rawlings, who is in the process of scouting plants and presses. “Our lack of vinyl is more because we have never wanted to print vinyl from our digital parts – because if we make it, we want it to actually be analog as it should be. And we wanted to master it as we master the records.”

Because Welch and Rawlings own Acony, they’re able to be in control of these decisions: not something afforded to every artist, and not something every artist can handle. It’s suited them well, since they purchased the space that housed a cinema in the 1920s and later became the thriving Woodland Studios in the 1970s – Young himself recorded Comes A Time there. Welch and Rawlings revitalized it, and it’s now a gleaming, black-and-white jewel in the center of the neighborhood that is gentrifying around it: Robert Plant came there to make Band Of Joy.

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