THE MAN occupying the producer’s chair on records from Old Crow Medicine Show, Dawes, longtime collaborator Gillian Welch, and many more, Dave Rawlings is Nashville gold.
While many will recognize him as the guy with the vintage archtop guitar playing and harmonizing alongside Welch (who was launched to the top of roots music thanks to her contributions to 2000’s treasured Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack), Rawlings helms a project of his own, Dave Rawlings Machine.
The band, which started as occasional endeavor of Rawlings, Welch, and a rotation of talented friends, made a grand return in 2015 with a second LP, Nashville Obsolete. A toughed-up version of the roots music many associate Rawlings and Welch with, it’s a must-have for any Americana fan.
Rawlings is a kind-hearted quick-talker with his hand in many pots, and it shows as excitedly chats about new ideas, musical growth, and getting back on the road with the Machine.
With you and Gillian being in multiple projects, do you sit down to write with a particular project in mind, or do you just write and find a place for it to fit?
The only time we write with intent is if we have an album getting close to being finished. Then we may try to angle the material one way or the other. Once we’ve finished out that group of songs, pile of thoughts, we might start to pull out one of the dusty notebook sheets that seemed like it would work well with whatever band we’re aiming at.
When we were working on the last Machine record, we realized we had a few songs that would be the core of a record, and we really just trying to finish as quick as we could. If there was stuff that seemed to suit that project, we’ll put it up for later.
It’s been about six years since the last Machine record.
There’s always going to look like there’s a lot of time between records. Something people don’t see so much is that there’s going to be fewer records in the world, considering that they’re obsolete. People spend their money because they’re forced to at this point. People live in a world where they think records will come out every year, or nine months...and now, it seems pretty typical to wait two, three years in between albums. I think that’s the way business has evolved. I’m sure if we were in the time when you could make a record and you didn’t have to go out on tour, there were a lot more of them.
It’s nice to not have to rush things and have that pressure.
We love to spend time writing songs and recording them—you do what you have to do. You also need to make sure that what you’re putting out is of a quality that you’re comfortable going out and supporting it, making art that people enjoy for a long time. I don’t know if we could ever pull the trigger on or put out a project that we didn’t feel good about.
You recorded the latest album to tape. Do you usually record analog?
It’s always how we’ve done it. We worked with T Bone [Burnett] and I learned my style of recording from him, and that’s how he was working at the time, so I learned it just as much as I could. When we got into making our third record, I was at the helm, and I just did it that way.
We really like the sound of analog stuff. For acoustic stuff...I’ve worked in other studios and with people with side projects in the digital world...there’s not a lot in the digital world for us. We’re not using a lot of tracks, we’re not sliding things around or tuning them. We’re really just interested in capturing the best sound we can.
Tape really captures the air in the room and around the instruments. It’s perfect for acoustic music.
You can capture that, and you can capture a lot, I often think, when you start thinking about the fidelity of records, it’s like you can take something that was recorded on tape, go all the way down to mp3, and there’s still a little bit of that essence back there. It’s an onion: you keep removing layers and you get closer and closer to the source. You can’t believe what you hear on the master tape or 2-inch tape before it’s mixed.
What are you working on right now?
We made a record of Willie Watson, who played in the Machine, trying to get another record together for him, and we have been working on new songs probably for a Gillian Welch record, though it’s too soon to tell.
Writing is such an all-consuming process. It’s not something that we’re good at doing if we half-think about it. It’s not, ‘Why don’t we write a song this week?’ That’s never going to happen. We have to put all our energy towards it. That’s what we’ve been doing, and, I don’t know, the ambition to write songs that are as good as the songs that we listen to and love from other artists and trying to figure out how to make that happen.
It’s interesting, because you can’t really enjoy your own work the way you enjoy the music that inspired you to do what you do, but that’s the point of it. When you make music that other people appreciate as deeply as you appreciate the stuff that you love, that completes the circle that makes it valid.
And I know that’s why, speaking for myself, I’m listening to some song that I think is one of the best songs ever written, there’s so much stuff in the world I love, I start thinking about it, and I want to know when I listen to a great instrumentalist, any great musician, that desire to be able to do that and figure out the nuances of your craft, and how when you can stand up onstage and do the thing you love to watch other people do, it’s a wonderful thing.
You and Gillian have worked together for so long now—did you see that happening when you first met? Was it just a real ‘click’ moment, musically?
I remember when we first met in Nashville, she moved down and I moved down maybe a couple months later.
If I was just to judge objectively who had the best vocal blend with Gillian, there were two other people she sang with who I think had a better natural blend than we do.
We were both interested in the same kind of music, we loved these old tunes from the ‘30s and ‘40s no one else cared about. Though we played bluegrass with people in big groups, we both said, ‘Man, I really love that stripped-down stuff with just a couple people.’
Being the mid-‘90s, this was the path to riches and fame, trying to remake old time music that only happened for a little period of time in the ‘30s, then went away. There’s still some stuff to be discovered there; they haven’t really plowed the end of that row. There’s still something out there.
We sat down and started trying to sing some of these songs, and I remember vividly thinking, ‘Well, our blend isn’t bad, and we have the same aesthetic and we like the same things, so it seems like it could grow into something.’ And when I hear recordings of us even a couple years later, we’re a lot better in a year than probably when we first sat down and sang together.
Nothing gets better if you don’t think about it, but as long as you pay attention to what you’re doing, hopefully you can make progress, develop this thing. The blend is seamless—it’s the result of singing a lot.
You really have to have some sort of talent. There’s a hundred thousand things in the world that wouldn’t matter if I worked hard at, I’ll never get good, but if you have a little bit of something and put some effort in, you can get it.
How’s playing in the Machine different for you than other projects?
When we play, one of the great pleasures of doing Machine shows is to have people like Paul [Kowert] from Punch Brothers, Willie Watson, and Brittany Hass. To have acoustic musicians of this caliber playing with us and to have a band I really feel strongly about, and to think about the people we’ve had play over the years, when John Paul Jones was out with us, or Gabe Witcher—it really makes it a different show.
It keeps things fresh for us; we wouldn’t have ever kept doing Machine shows except when we went out in 2014 to do shows for fun with John Paul Jones, the audiences had grown without us doing too much. People really loved the shows, enjoy the experience.
We’re able to make a bigger sound, improvise in a different way because we got a whole band with us. Hopefully we get some places we can’t normally go as a duet.