Dave Rawlings makes sparks fly as bandleader
It would be easy for Dave Rawlings to take a cue from John F. Kennedy’s infamous quote in Paris. I can just hear him quipping at a show: “I am the man who accompanied Gillian Welch to Nashville, and I have enjoyed it.
Since meeting at Berklee College of Music nearly two decades ago, the pair has taken Welch’s sweet-like-honey folk and bluegrass musings to main stages—their endearing performance style and songwriting procuring a timelessness that forbids a listener from passing by without feeling a pinch in the heart, if not more.
Rawlings has long served as Welch’s partner at home, her producer in the studio and, most notably, her partner onstage filling out those celebrated harmonies and supplying his signature guitar flights. A flatpicking virtuoso, his instrumental twists and turns complement Welch’s rhythmic strums with a fiery brilliance and brightness that sings just as eloquently as their vocals. He is, to say the least, a master lyricist of the steel strings.
Now, as the Dave Rawlings Machine and with a debut album of mostly cover songs and a few originals, he’s stepping out as a leading man—but he’s not alone.
The seeds for the Machine were solidified when Rawlings was touring as a guitarist with Bright Eyes in 2007. An opening act canceled in South Dakota, so with Welch visiting, the two spontaneously filled the slot. It was the first time he’d fronted a set before a large audience and, he says, the crowd was unaware they weren’t an official band and “it was a good shot in the arm to have sort of done it trial by fire.”
Rawlings has worked with a slew of alt-country royalty, and those same folks have influenced his latest project: Ryan Adams blurted out what would become the Dave Rawlings Machine moniker during a telephone conversation, while Conor Oberst blurted out the phrase he would use for his album title, A Friend of a Friend. (Rawlings does worthy covers of both.) Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show perform on most of the nine tracks, and three members of OCMS are joining this leg of the Dave Rawlings Machine tour, which hits Santa Cruz on Friday, Feb. 5 at The Catalyst.
While in Los Angeles working on Welch’s next album, and about to guest on “A Prairie Home Companion” before heading this way, Dave Rawlings talks with GT about his starring role, his favorite guitar, one banjo revolution and the Banana Slug leading it.
GOOD TIMES: You’ve worked behind the scenes with so many artists, but for A Friend of a Friend you’re a frontman. How does that role reversal feel?
DAVE RAWLINGS: It makes me nervous but it’s like most things, once you jump into the icy pool it doesn’t feel so cold. I’ve definitely learned some stuff and it’s definitely helped my singing get better. Both Gillian and I, and I think the Crows too, any time you play behind a different person—which in this case is me—the feeling is a little different, and we’ve found some new music. It was never my main ambition to be a front person, or if it was I did a terrible job achieving that goal [laughs], so for my part it is a nice change and I’m trying to focus on it. Now that I’m doing it it’s been really rewarding and I’ve just been happy that people have liked the shows. If they clap in the end and don’t leave in the middle I feel like you’re doing OK.
I had read you were surprised you could carry the vocals alone for “I Hear them All,” the solo acoustic song on the album (originally recorded as a rocking tune by OCMS).
That’s true, of course. I did think it came out decent, but I did go through like two days of thinking I was the worst singer on earth and that I’d never be able to record anything of just myself.
What did you study early on at Berklee?
For a lot of the time I played electric guitar mostly; I played a Stratocaster that I bought with my paper route money. I think I bought it with 315 one-dollar bills! I remember I had this giant stack of one-dollar bills and the guy [at the store] thought it was really funny. But at Berklee I just studied harmony. Though they teach jazz there I found a group of people at school who loved country music, bluegrass music and alternative rock that I liked at the time. So I wasn’t one of the jazz guys at the school, I was just a kid who was trying to play guitar as fast as I could because I hadn’t been playing for that long. Like a lot of people who don’t end up graduating from there, I was playing in a lot of bands and I went to school a few days a week and then eventually drifted off to Nashville. But it was a great school … and it sort of helped me play catch-up because I started playing guitar when I was 16.
Your flatpicking on your Epiphone Olympic archtop has become a celebrity vocal unto itself. What led you to that particular guitar and that style?
I found the guitar in my friend’s garage/basement. I didn’t hear it, I just sort of had a good feeling about it; it looked like an interesting-sounding instrument. I had a vague thought that maybe a small archtop with a mid-range sound would work well in between Gillian’s guitar and our voices. The first time I heard it on microphone, which was the day we started recording Gillian’s first record, Revival, I immediately responded strongly to it and thought, ‘Well, this will be my guitar at least for the time being.’ And that’s never changed. The style in which I play with Gillian evolved around the way she plays rhythm, in order to try to create pictures and an atmosphere with two guitars that doesn’t just sound like someone’s strumming across all the strings and the other person is just picking out single notes. We wanted to make a little band with two instruments.
How do you feel about the current growth the country, bluegrass scene is experiencing?
When Gillian and I were making her first record I know that we felt more alone and more strange, like ‘Well, this is what we do,’ and we didn’t know anyone else doing it. And that was an OK feeling; you feel like you’re on a desert island just making the music you love and you hope that people like it. But I know that over the years that’s changed and I feel like now we have more friends and musical compatriots—people who are interested in the same music and the emotions and stories that that kind of music tells, so I see it happening. We always used to joke when we were doing those first records that the banjo revolution was coming … Maybe it’s already hit Santa Cruz. You might be overrun in Santa Cruz by banjos and dispensaries!
Anything else you’d like to say to Santa Cruz?
Well, Gillian has roots there as a [UC Santa Cruz] Banana Slug so it’s always been a special place for us to come and play, and we feel like we’ve always had really good times there.
You can be an honorary Banana Slug.
Yes, I would love to be!
Dave Rawlings Machine plays at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5, at The Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $22 in advance, $25 at the door. For more information, call 423-1338.