By Brian Wise.
Dave Rawlings’ new solo album Poor David’s Almanack sees him ditching the Machine moniker but it is the same old crew on yet another great recording!
Where does a David Rawlings albums end and a Gillian Welch album start? For all intents and purposes it is merely who happens to be singing lead. Nothing wrong with that at all, as this eighth collaboration between the duo powerfully attests. Welch co-write five of the ten songs, as well as singing and playing a variety of instruments. You can be assured that when you see either name on a recording it will be a joint effort and it will be as beautiful as you might expect.
There is something very special about those gorgeous harmonies and the interplay with Rawlings guitar that make every album the duo makes something to be treasured. All of which seems over enthusiastic praise until you immerse yourself in the music.
Without the Machine in the title, Rawlings and Welch continue along the path they have trod for decades: in some sort of parallel world that is much simpler than the one the rest of us know. It is a world of old-timey music where families sang around pianos in their lounges or on porches. There is whimsy and fun and then there is gravity and seriousness. It was an era when music provided a welcome relief from the worries of the world. That is never more applicable than now.
There is almost nothing modern about what they are doing and yet that is exactly what makes their music so timeless. Even the title of the new album with its reference to the ‘almanack’ is a blast from the past.
Welch did the illustration for the cover and the vintage hand lettering, as she had done for their previous album Nashville Obsolete (recorded under the Machine moniker). It evokes an era long gone; yet the musical values remain steadfast.
The cast for the new album is essentially the same as previously with Willie Watson, Paul Kowert and Brittany Haas and Ketch Secor (of the Old Crow Medicine Show) all helping out at the famous Woodland Sound Studios in Nashville. Guests include Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith of Dawes (a band that seems to have gone to another level since we saw there in Australia a couple of years ago).
The link to the past is further underlined by a playful song such as ‘Money Is The Meat In The Coconut,’ which sounds like it might have come from the Depression-era 1930s. (It also recalls Harry Nilsson’s 1971 song ‘Coconut’).
Despite the musical references to a bygone time are still plenty of songs here that fit into the classic Welch-Rawlings mould. ‘Cumberland Gap,’ rolls along with the full ensemble propelled by Taylor Goldsmith on organ. ‘Midnight Train’ features a classic Rawlings guitar refrain.
The melancholic ‘Airplane’ – which might just as easily have been sung by Welch and is one of the songs of the year to date – is perhaps the album’s highlights. A string section strongly underlines the emotive harmonies and lyrics: ‘If I had an airplane and I had wings/ I’d go flying over every sorrowful thing.’ ‘Lindsey Button’ resounds like an old folk tale with the repetitive cry of ‘long time ago.’
‘Guitar Man,’ another standout, might well be autobiographical and at only three-and-a-half minutes is way too short. The song title recalls the ‘70s hit by Bread of the same title but this is far more ominous with some really lovely solos by Rawlings on electric guitar that we could have happily enjoyed for another few minutes!
When I caught up with David Rawlings by phone to talk about Poor David’s Almanack, he was at the Woodland Sound Studios where the album was recorded, sitting behind the drum kit.
Tell us what the studio is like. Can you describe it for us?
Well, the live room….. I’m in the A room, and it’s a old-school space. It’s built inside what would have originally been a movie theatre. It was built in the ‘teens  and this room is….it’s a pretty sizeable room. It’s probably about 30 feet by about 40 feet with about 20-foot ceilings, and there’s one isolation booth in one of the corners. But it’s got linoleum, that good old small square linoleum you might remember from the ‘60s and ’50s, but has a kind of better sound than the new rubbery stuff. I think it’s because it has asbestos in it, and acoustical tiles and some wood on the walls. So, it’s a very comfortable space.
When we actually bought this studio, when it had been out of service and it was on the market for a few years – well, it’s here in East Nashville where East Nashville was quite down on the heels at the time – this room had been changed in the early ‘90s and had been set up a little differently with more isolation booths and some kind of drywall, as opposed to the older surfaces. But a few years ago, we finally converted it back to how it would have been in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s and kind of the heyday of the studio and it sounds much better that way, in our opinion.
It’s a pretty famous studio, isn’t it?
Yeah. A lot of music that people would have heard was made here as early as the ‘60s, and then, the real heyday was probably the ‘70s, and very early ‘80s. I mean records, the big Will the Circle be Unbroken record was done here, that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did and Neil Young recorded some of Comes The Time here, and then, another band, Kansas, they did their Point of No Return record and Dust in the Wind and things. But I mean, honestly, this studio in the heyday of, let’s say, the mid-‘70s through the early ‘80s was running four shifts – 24 hours a day there were just sessions. I have some of the old logbooks and there’s hardly a name that didn’t get through here, you know?
There’s a lot of history in that room, Dave.
A lot of history in this room and both of the rooms were used pretty equally, so it’s an amazing space. It has history with us because in ’95, we came in here with T-Bone into this very room and recorded a couple songs. We were finishing up the Revival album, so it was in late ’95, probably in November maybe? Then, we wanted to make our second record here in its entirety in ’97, but the tornado came through and damaged it. That actually damaged the building and set off a feud between the guy who ran the studio and the person who owned the building. That eventually led to it ceasing to be a studio and coming up onto the market.
But, in the interim, I worked here with Ryan Adams on the Heartbreaker record and Emmylou made Wrecking Ball with Daniel Lanois here. This is in the ‘90s, so it’s an amazing place and we’re incredibly fortunate to have been able to buy it. It just happened to be one of those weird moments where nobody really appreciated this side of town and this area yet and a rundown old theatre. It should have been a Walgreens or a CVS, like a pharmacy was going to buy the lot, but because of a small building that blocks some of the visibility from the corner, they didn’t want it. So thank goodness for that, or it would be another studio that you hear about that’s just gone.
I assume from your description that your albums, your music, is all recorded basically live. Maybe the drums are in the isolation booth, but everything else is live, is that right?
Well, let’s think about this. The songs on this record that aren’t live are … Well, there’s actually some overdubs on this record. You know, if Gillian and I recording by ourselves, it will be completely live, and a lot of the machine stuff is done that way. Or, I should say when this record Poor David’s Almanack, a track like ‘Midnight Train’ or a lot of the tracks will be a hundred per cent live, but Gillian overdubs some drums on a number of songs on this record and they’re not in the booth, they’re sort of out on the floor. We put a few overdubs on things to sort of flesh out this record.
Something like ‘Cumberland Gap’, Gillian played electric bass and Griffin Goldsmith from Dawes played drums and Taylor played organ and I played guitar and we put down a basic track for that. Then we edited that into a form, and then, Gillian and I played acoustic guitars, and then, I took another guitar solo and an electric guitar solo. That track, with Ken Scott’s help, who engineered and worked with us on this record, we built that up more like in kind of what I think of as an early ‘70s kind of way where we put down basics, and then, we used all 16 tracks. In the end, we were down to one track and Gillian and I did some of the vocals where we were singing and playing a guitar at the same time just to flesh it out.
‘Guitar Man’ was cut very much the same way where I put down the electric guitar as we were doing a basic track, but the acoustics from the vocals went down later.
It carries on from the theme with Nashville Obsolete in the title, the Almanack. Almanacs used to be very, very important to farmers in the old days, didn’t they? They were incredibly important.
Yes. They made some predictions usually about the annual weather and also just gave you tips on when to plant and phases of the mood and such things. We were making a nod to Poor Richard’s Almanack, which was a publication that Benjamin Franklin published. He included witticisms and stories and that sort of thing, and that’s what we were nodding to more than anything. We wanted this to have the feeling of an old folk song folio or something like that, and phrases like “Money is the meat in the coconut” seem very at home in that kind of a world. That’s where the title sort of sprung from and it felt like a good …….we like the idea of Gillian doing the illustrations for the cover and we’re doing the hand lettering, which she is very good at doing that sort of thing. She actually did the hand lettering on Nashville Obsolete, too, so the title sort of facilitated that and we’re just trying to have a bit of fun.
Do you ever get the feeling that you were born in the wrong era?
Not really. Honestly. There’s things about the past, old instruments where the wood was very good that they were able to harvest, and the craftsmanship was great. I really believe in looking to the past to find the things that were well-made or that were done the best, but I’m not the kind of person who … You know, I lament that when things aren’t made as well now, but it’s not because I want to buy something old. It’s just because I want to buy something good.
It’s sort of the same with music. It’s there’s these old melodies that you find something that has survived for 300 years or an old folk story that’s been told since, you know, for 2,000 years. These are the kinds of things that they’ve been around for a reason. You can learn something from them and you can try to add, hopefully inject some of yourself into that bloodstream. But as far as directly attached to wishing……. I suppose if I was born in the ‘30s I would have looked at the great stuff from the 1860s and thought, “Man, they made hinges better a hundred years ago.” Because I’m always never more delighted than when you find something that’s been really improved upon, or the things that we do best now. Quality is far more important to me than temporal position.
I think when we caught up in Nashville a couple of years ago when you came into the studio when I recorded my radio show, we were rhapsodising about the Sony WM-D6 Walkman Professional Cassette Player.
Right, right. Yeah. I remember it well, and those are great decks. I laugh at the studio itself. It’s like if you look at what equipment we kind of use, what gear we use, there’s a real … you try to just take the best from each decade. It’s not like it’s all from one point in time. It’s just things ebb and flow and you have the luxury of looking back to take the best, if you’re inclined to, I suppose.
You switched off the Machine for this album and it makes me wonder where does the Machine begin and Gillian and David start. It’s all kind of, I guess, symbiotic, isn’t it, that it sort of flows from one to the other, depending on how you do it?
Yeah. We didn’t think we were going to confuse anybody by calling it David Rawlings and we thought it went better with the title. In some ways, the music, to be honest, it was easier for me to picture looking at your radio if the song comes up and seeing David Rawlings ‘Cumberland Gap’, then Dave Rawlings Machine ‘Cumberland Gap’ was a little more confusing as far as what you’re going to be hearing to me. So we thought, “Well, let’s just go with it and see how we feel,” and now that I’ve talked about it a bit, and the music’s been around for a little while, at least in our world, I’m really happy we went this way. It just feels like a natural progression. Maybe there’ll be another, something else under the Machine in the future, but if we do, it might be even then, maybe it’ll be more of a collective or something. But I don’t know that it matters. We’re all interested in trying to make the most music we can and, hopefully, have it be stuff that people can enjoy getting behind and listening to.
You’re going out on a short tour. Who will be in that combination? Is it going to be the same people we saw with you down here last year?
It will be. Yeah, it’ll be Willie Watson and Paul and Brittany. You know, I’d thought about maybe bringing out someone to bang on some drums, but I think my friend who I was interested in having do that had a conflict on this little run, so maybe in November when we do the next batch of stuff, there’ll be someone there. But for the moment it should be the same quintet, which I’m excited about because we haven’t gotten to play together in a minute.
It’s engineered by Ken Scott and Matt Andrews. Now, what do they bring to the table? Because I would kind of think that by this stage, you could probably do the whole thing yourself, if you really wanted to.
Well, here’s the thing. Matt has been on the team as far as like how Gillian and I record in the studio, and the sounds we get in the studio itself. We’ve been working with Matt for almost 20 years now, and so, he’s rather an integral part of what we’ve developed. If Gillian and I were going to sit down and play a song that we were going to release, even if I could go in the other room and start it and set up the microphones myself and do it entirely independent of anyone, I’d be doing it with things that we’ve developed with Matt. I’m saying yes, in a way, I would probably still put his name on it as engineer. In fact, on some records that may have happened once or twice where he wasn’t here, but it doesn’t matter because we all sort of work together.
Ken – who needs no introduction from me and is such an incredibly talented guy who has worked on so much music that I have the utmost respect for – having him in the room to do the magical things that he does in terms of having ideas that he……….I haven’t worked with too many engineers who had such a natural relationship with what they wanted to hear. On the song ‘Yup’, he kept thinking, he’s, like, “You know, I keep hearing a musical saw on this track,” and I thought, “Okay.” But because of where it fits in the track sonically, you know, it was a very beautiful choice and once we sort of understood we kind of made it the voice of the devil a bit, you know. When hell gets mentioned, you hear the saw. It’s not something that he thinks out, it’s just a feeling that he has, and then, when you get … and very much mixing it the same way. He has a way of balancing things where, once you hear it locked in to focus, when you hear where he wants to put things, you understand that he’s hearing something that … He’s gone to a place that I wouldn’t have gone to, and so, from that standpoint I find really rewarding and learned a lot.
There are some beautiful songs in the album, I have to say. I’ve just been enjoying it immensely. Tell me about ‘Lindsey Button’. I’m intrigued.
Well, this was sort of a melody that I sort of came upon this little melodic fragment, and then, wanted to sort of build it out into a song. It just felt like such a classic folk melody to me once we sort of had it harmonised that I wanted to tell a story and this long time ago refrain just seems to be like one of the great questions of life or something. Every time I sing it or hear it, it makes me think something different about the transitory nature of life or of art or of time itself.
I kept sort of thinking of a name. I wanted to have something that felt classic like ‘Barbara Allen’, you know? So I was thinking about ‘Barbara Allen’ and thinking about that beautiful story and actually, know someone named Lindsey Button, and so, I suggested it and we thought it was a perfect fit. It’s a beautiful name, and it’s not one that you forget.
It’s a great name. When I heard it, I thought there has to be a person called Lindsey Button.
Right, right. Yeah. It’s a fun thing, and then, of course, the story goes on … It’s a long song, but it was still sort of edited. I never really knew what part of the story was going to come up, so there were moments where perhaps she was a ghost. Various things came and went, but I’ve been wondering, actually, if I shouldn’t write ‘Lindsey Button Part Two.’
Great idea. Thanks for your time.
Okay, well, thank you so much.
It’s such a pleasure to talk to you. Congratulations on what is yet another wonderful album and give my best to Gillian and congratulate her as well.
I certainly will. Thanks so much.