Gillian Welch are in Australia for their first tour here in more than a decade. Brian Wise met them in Nashville to talk about their latest album together, Nashville Obsolete by the Dave Rawlings Machine.
By Brian Wise.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to claim that the Gillian Welch tour of Australia in 2004 with David Rawlings has become part of music legend. On their first visit here, the duo inspired not just immediate acclaim and an enthusiasm offered to few tourists but as word of their performances spread like wildfire, all the shows quickly sold out.
In what was to become their heartland of Victoria, the duo did five shows in Melbourne – two at The Forum and one at The Prince Bandroom in St Kilda. The set lists ran to an epic twenty-three songs and included versions of ‘It’s A Long Way to The Top’ (with Tim Rogers) and Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Manic Depression.’
Then there was the magnificent, intimate show one at the Meeniyan Town Hall that will live long in everyone’s memory. Though the hall was crammed to the gills with maybe four hundred people, just like the Stones’ 1973 shows at Kooyong it seems that everyone was there. If you listened to the stories you would think that the humble hall held thousands!
“That was a great tour,” said David Rawlings when I met up with the duo in Nashville during Americana last September. “We had a blast when we were down there.”
“I guess we gave them enough time to acquire that sort of legendary status,” he adds when I mention the affection those shows engendered.
“We try to do things on a sort of glacial timescale,” he laughs when I ask why it has taken them so long to return to Australia.
“A ten to fourteen year cycle,” pipes in Gillian.
That cycle comes around next month when Welch and Rawlings finally make it back to our shores, more then eleven years after their first visit.
We caught up to talk about the brand new David Rawlings machine album Nashville Obsolete on the day of its release at the famous Sound Stage Recording Studios where they were guests on my radio show Off The Record.
Coincidentally, they had recorded ‘I’m Not Afraid To Die’ and ‘My Morphine’ in this very studio, when it was owned by Ronnie Milsap, not long after they moved to Nashville and were recording the second Gillian Welch album Hell Among The Yearlings, released in 1998.
“We’ve been here over twenty years now,” explains Rawlings, “and somewhere in the middle of that time, long before the boom that is now Nashville happened, there was a long period of bust, I suppose. In the middle of that time period, a lot of the large recording studios were for sale and we ended up buying one of the old ones that are on the east side of town.”
If you have visited Nashville during the past few years you would have noticed the incredible amount of construction. Huge cranes dot the skyline wherever you look downtown, construction site send traffic on numerous detours.
“They’ve been here for so many years they must shuffle them around,” says Rawlings of the cranes. “I don’t know if it’s good, bad, or indifferent. I don’t know that’s it’s any one person’s to judge. There’s things about it that are nice to see the city grow and then there’s things that you see get torn down that you don’t want to see go. I think like everything, there’s a couple sides to that coin.”
“There’s a lot of really good food in town now,” adds Welch. “A lot of great chefs have moved here.”
The other part of the upside is that there are also some new venues in town. The classy City Winery is an important addition to the club. There is also the Ascend Amphitheater downtown and near the Country Music Hall of Fame. This is the venue where Gillian and David are scheduled to play the following night and is very much like a modern version of Melbourne’s Myer Music Bowl with a better main stage and sound system.
The conversation, as you will discover, quickly turns into a revelation of their philosophy and the approach that has sustained them in the music industry for more than two decades. You can’t say they are in the ‘business’ because that implied a certain ‘busy-ness’ and their approach is anything but busy!
A few weeks before meeting Gillian Welch and David Rawlings in Nashville during last September’s Americana Festival I had been rummaging through my cupboard and resurrected the Sony Walkman Professional cassette recorder that I had bought back in 1984. Now, to most people the initials WM-D6C will mean nothing, while some might think it is the designation for some kind of weapons of mass destruction. But both Gillian and David know exactly what it means.
The WM-D is not your ordinary run of the mill cassette machine. This was the Pro model that cost me US$250 in San Francisco when it was about $750 in Australia. I recorded scores of interviews on it, using an external microphone, and it never missed a beat. Indeed, its very design was a thing of beauty. MiniDisc and DAT recorders have come and gone with their fancy technology, temperamental natures and battery chewing hunger but my WMD lives on. It works as well now as when I bought it 30 years ago. Of course, the technical specs seem almost primitive compared to your sophisticated digital recording these days but it never failed.
‘They say you can’t love a material thing,’ wrote Jimmy Webb once but I would place the WMD on my list of objects that you can have affection for, along with the BMW R series motorbikes, that old watch my father left me and a few other items that have become like friends over the years.
I think that old Sony might have pride of place in the mythical store that David and Gillian refer to as Nashville Obsolete – a place for old, rare and obscure items of all sorts – and which prompted the name of their latest album together.
The last time we met, in fact, was definitely a blast from the past. We were backstage at the Fox Theater in Los Angeles on the afternoon of their show supporting Buffalo Springfield, who we could hear doing a sound check as we spoke. That evening, they completely won over an audience best described as ‘mature,’ many of whom might never had heard them before.
This time around we meet at Sound Stage on the afternoon prior to their appearance in duo format at the Ascend Amphitheater on a bill with Loretta Lynn, whom I think can be rightfully described as a legend.
Watching the lavishly attired Lynn from the wings, they decided that they were totally under-dressed and immediately made a quick trip home where they changed into their Nudie suits for what was to be a fabulous show.
Strangely, they did not to play anything from the Dave Rawlings Machine album, preferring to leave that for a full band performance as they had at the Americana Awards a few nights earlier where they played ‘Short Haired Woman Blues’.
After the radio show recording, I told Gillian and David about my resurrected Walkman, which I had brought back to life because I needed to dub some interviews from cassette onto my computer. They were impressed.
‘Wow!’ exclaimed David, “We’ve got one of those in our car. We listen to music on it all the time.”
“That was a great machine,” said Gillian and we chatted like nerds about this very old-fashioned piece of technology.
Later, it seemed that the machine we had been discussing was the perfect analogy for Gillian and David’s music. Old fashioned, ever reliable, beautiful and timeless. Even the sepia-toned cover photo on the album looks like it was taken a century ago.
Nashville Obsolete was recorded at Woodland Sound Studios in Nashville. It contains a minimal cast of additional musicians that included Paul Kowert from the Punch Brothers on bass and vocals, Willie Watson on guitar and vocals and Brittany Haas from Crooked Still on fiddle – who will all be with the ensemble for the Australian tour – along with Jordan Tice on mandolin. Dave plays guitar and mandolin and sings while Gillian adds vocals and plays guitar and drums. Strings were added at Royal Studios in Memphis under the guidance of Boo Mitchell, son of the legendary owner of the studios the late Willie Mitchell who made so many great recordings there with Al Green.
The obvious difference between this and a Gillian Welch album is that Dave assumes the lead vocals; in many ways it is like the Lennon-McCartney partnership in that the two are inextricably linked. In fact, they are so close that during the interview they will often finish each other’s sentences or thoughts. It is uncanny.
A few days before our conversation Welch and Rawlings were given a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at the Americana Awards, which seemed a little odd for a duo that still has decades ahead.
“We didn’t know if it was a subtle way of telling us we should stop,” laughed David when I mentioned this and the fact that the latest album is only their seventh album together.
“It’s funny,” he adds. “With the earliest records that Gillian made – I think the first one came out in ’96 and the second one came out in ’98 – we were sort of more on a roll and after that we became independent and we weren’t on a record label anymore but had started our own label and built our own recording studio, we started taking all of the other jobs that it used to be that in the music industry other people did.
“When you compound doing all those jobs with also touring the world or certainly touring for years at a time, I think that that has slowed down music production in everyone’s sphere or in most people’s spheres who are independent.
“It used to be, I suppose, you finished a record and there had been an art department who were working on the cover and a press department that were working on these things and you handed it in and they said, ‘Okay, you’re going to go play fourteen shows and then you’re going to start writing songs again.’ That hasn’t been the world of music for quite awhile and also we just write really slow.”
“There is some trade-off for it,” says Gillian. “Even through all the changes that happened when we started our own label, we do have more artistic control. In fact, you couldn’t have more artistic control than we have over our records and every photograph that goes onto the album package and the whole deal.”
“I’m really excited about this new Dave Rawlings Machine record,” says Gillian. “It’s kind of the first Dave Rawlings Machine record that we made the way we make Gillian Welch records. In other words, it is technically Dave’s second record: A Friend Of A Friend, and now Nashville Obsolete. But A Friend of a Friend was almost more of a collection of songs that Dave had penned with myself but with other writers as well, with Ketch Secor from the Old Crow Medicine Show, with Ryan Adams. It was … What did you say, Dave? It was like a greatest hits…….”
“For a bunch of records that never got made,” laughs David, “and not even Greatest Hits because it was good but it had that flavour of a compilation, just some things that have been played over the years and this record has more of a cohesive feel. It was a written in a focused period of time and seems to address the themes that are within one song and flow into another song and, hopefully, it has some continuity there that people will enjoy.
I point out that the new album is a lot sparser than the last David Rawlings record.
“Right. That’s true,” says David and Gillian adds, “That’s kind of more to our taste. It is
closer to what we do most of the time and yet, one of the great things about putting out records as the Dave Rawlings Machine is it affords us the chance to do different things……
“…….Have different sorts of arrangements,” says David while Gillian finishes his sentence with, “strings, for instance.”
“Right, yeah, we put some strings on this,” continues David. “We were thinking initially to just do it as a trio record with Paul Kowert playing bass and started out recording that way and then gradually found some of the songs called for a little more sweetening, sort of surround the thing that is my voice. Yeah, that’s where we ended up.”
The album’s title Nashville Obsolete, has a lot of connotations and even the album cover with its sepia-toned shot of the ensemble sitting under a tree, seems to mirror the concept.
“Yeah, it does,” agrees David. “That’s why we liked it as a title. It came out of something sort of whimsical. A lot of the way that we record records and the equipment that we use and the studio……….I mean, recording studios in their way are fairly obsolete in and of themselves, never mind the equipment that’s 50 years old that’s around. We’re forever having to figure out some way to re-machine some little part or do something to keep things running.
“We had thought at some point there was a little basement space we don’t use and we thought, ‘We should open a little shop down there called Nashville Obsolete and we should just sell things that no one needs.’ You know, typewriter ribbons or buggy whips or little tiny retaining clips……
“Cassette tapes!” says Gillian.
“Yeah, exactly,” laughs David, “and have it just be all mail order. Send out catalogues like they used to.”
“No internet presence at all,” says Gillian, “just street address, mail order.”
“Once in awhile when something would happen, we’d go, ‘Oh, we got to remember to put that on the list to sell at Nashville Obsolete,” adds Dave.
“I got a list going. I got a list in my pocket,” says Gillian and she produces her phone and peers at it and recites the list.
“Roller blind pulls, videotape cassettes, Dynotape, typewriter ribbon, paper packing tape. A lot of tape, you might notice. I’m very into tape. 45 inserts, tubes, newspapers, pencils, pencil sharpeners, carbon paper, printed service manuals, file folders, Rolodex, Rolodex cards, overhead projector bulbs, rubber stamps.
“You left out Betamax,” I add.
“Yeah, there you go!” laughs David.
“Betamax!” says Gillian. “Please, if you have anything to add to our list, I still want to open this store.”
I ask about the intent of sepia-toned cover of the album, which harks back to an era in which the Nashville Obsolete store would be thriving.
“With the tin type,” replies David. “It spoke a little bit of the change in Nashville. I mean the word ‘obsolete’ rings well with the word machine. It speaks to a feeling like we’ve been doing this long enough that we may be obsolete ourselves and not being sure about that, so I don’t know. I like the way it connected.”
“Also it addresses the whole music world,” says Gillian. “The whole music industry is in a precariously obsolete position right now in a way.”
There’s an interesting juxtaposition between the word ‘obsolete’ and the fact that the music Rawlings and Welch make seems timeless.
“It was obsolete to begin with!” laughs David and he turns to Gillian. “We had a conversation yesterday about that word and some things … You had a point about obsolescence.”
“I see a connection between obsolescence and perfection,” says Gillian.
“In other words,” she continues, “because we were talking about this, for instance, there was an old tape dispenser made for dispensing paper packing tape.”
“We’re back to tape,” interjects Dave.
“I’m sorry,” replies Gillian. “My mind revolves around tape. R. Crumb made this tape dispenser quite famous. People knew he was crazy about this thing. It weighs about 50 pounds. It’s made of cast iron. It’s perfect. It will never break. This is the only paper tape dispenser you will ever need in your life but it’s also completely obsolete though it’s perfect: a very green product, it dispenses paper tape, no use of plastics. It’s a plant-based adhesive.
“All that to say there is this idea of obsolescence and perfection. They rub right up against each other.”
Welch confesses that she does not currently own one of these tape dispensers, “but I hope to some day”
I mention that the duo also stubbornly continue to record on tape, a medium that many musicians are returning to and often prefer.
“That’s right, which is quite obsolete,” he replies. “I sometimes have reasonably good powers of prognostication and before tape disappeared, there was a company that we use their audiotape and I figured that they would go out of business at some point, so towards the end when the quality got a little spotty, I said, ‘Next time you guys make a batch, send up a reel and I’ll test it out and if I like it, I’ll buy a lot.’ We ended up buying a huge amount. We had gone on tour a couple times and we basically took out a loan and bought a lot of audiotape and put it in a vault. We’re still working through it but there’s not a lot left.”
A lot of people would say they can the difference between vinyl and a CD. Can they tell the difference between recording on Pro Tools and recording on tape?
“Oh, there’s an enormous difference,” reponds Rawlings.
“Oh my goodness!” exclaims Welch, as if I have asked the day’s most stupid question!
“Yeah. I mean it’s a completely different sound,” states Rawlings firmly.
“It’s to the point where I can’t even stand working hearing what we do off Pro Tools,” adds Welch. “It’s very rare for us to be recorded that way but every now and again someone will ask us to contribute to a project and it never does that magical thing where it takes what you did and turns it into art for me. For me there’s some sound I’m looking for, I’m waiting for. I’m waiting for that magic moment when it comes back magnetized and that never happens.
“There’s just a basic, if you’re working on it, tape machine,” explains Rawlings to me patiently. “There’s a button you can press where you can hear the audio going through it and you’re not listening to it recorded on tape. You’re just listening through the machine. Then there’s another button you can press where all of a sudden you hear what you did coming back off the tape. I wish we had an example. I wish we were sitting there and you could hear, ‘Okay, this is what we call input. This is what we did,’ and you’d be like, ‘Oh, that sounds nice,’ and this is it coming back off tape and you’d go, ‘Oh, that sounds like a record that I’d like to listen to for a long time.’ It’s amazing when you work digitally. There’s a lot of ways people make great records digitally. I just don’t know how but the fact is when you do that, when you don’t have that little step …”
“That moment,” says Welch. “That yeah, that little magic.”
“I can kind of understand now why your albums take so long to come out,” I reply, noting that this is only the seventh album they have made together.
As for the songs on Nashville Obsolete, some of them I think I’ve heard before. I am certain that I’ve heard them perform ‘Candy’ and maybe even ‘The Last Pharaoh’ in concert in America over recent years.
“No, ‘Candy’ is the only one that was around for a little bit of time,” David says gently correcting me. “That got written onstage during one of the Machine tours. That’s the oldest song on there. Everything else is fairly new.”
“If you think you’ve heard ‘Pharaoh’ it’s just because it’s a song that sounds like you’ve heard it before, I think,” laughs Gillian.
“That was a very fun one to cut. You used to see Johnny Cash and he did this trick with his guitar where he would turn his guitar into more of a snare drum. He’d weave a dollar bill through his strings and it would get that feeling and I did that on ‘Pharaoh.’ I got a hamburger receipt woven through my strings on that one and it’s a neat little trick. If anyone’s wondering, if they hear the record and wondering, ‘What is that?’ That’s what that is.”
“I’m sure many people are going to be emulating that almost immediately,” I suggest.
“I stole that from Johnny Cash so take it,” laughs Gillian.
I wasn’t sure what reaction ‘Short Haired Woman Blues’ would cause but when they performed the song at the Americana Awards ceremony the audience saw the humour in it. ‘Don’t go lovin’ short haired women / They gonna leave you cryin’ / After thinkin’ it was all in fun,” he sings.
“We had started writing that a year or two ago and it didn’t have that title,” explains Rawlings. “It had a slightly different slant to it.”
“It was a little bit more about the ponies and a little bit less about the short-haired woman,” adds Welch, “and then it became more and more about the short-haired woman.”
“Then as we as we thought about the story and the things that connected to it and where the story was coming from,” continues Dave, “all of a sudden we are working on the last verse and those words spilled out. There’s a Lightnin’ Hopkins song that Townes Van Zandt covered called ‘Short Haired Woman Blues.’ So the title I’d always known and I always thought it was a very funny title. I also thought it a very funny song – the song that Lightnin’ wrote – because you can’t really tell why he has any problem with short-haired women. I did find out recently, one of the things he says, ‘I don’t want no woman with hair no longer than mine. Nothing but bad luck and trouble. Have you buying rats all the time.’ I always thought, ‘Well, that’s strange’.”
“Yeah, that’s fascinating,” says Gillian.
“I found out recently that there was something called the Hair Rat that you put up under a wig to make your hair do a little taller,” adds Dave.
“Or under your own hair,” adds Gillian. “Put it under your own hair to make it certain hairdos if you want a little height or bangs, that ’40s look where the woman’s bangs kind of poof out. It would often have a rat under the bangs.”
“This is something we’ll probably be selling at Nashville Obsolete,” laughs Rawlings. “I always liked in that song that there was a sort of a truth to people who have this experience with a person who then makes generalisations or just be like, ‘I don’t mess with short-haired women anymore. They’re trouble.’ Even though it doesn’t make sense.”
“People say, No, not the redheads!” notes Welch.
Finally, there is, of course, there is an epic track on the album. “There has to be an epic, doesn’t there?” I say.
“The Trip,” says Welch.
“Turned out there was one,” agrees Rawlings. “I don’t know if they’re necessary but we do like long songs sometimes.”
“I love getting to write a story, a lyric, that isn’t necessarily linear,” agrees Welch. “I like the way ‘The Trip’ functions in that it just starts to gang up, kind of like a snowball. It just gets bigger and bigger. At least that’s my hope. If people like the song and if it is successful, it just gains weight and by the end of the song, hopefully it seems to have said something.”
“I wanted something that had a sort of hypnotic quality that kept moving forward,” adds Rawlings, “There’s a Bob Dylan song called ‘Billy’ that we used to play sometimes that sort of had chords like that and had that feeling. I like to have something that can sort of move through a number of moods. I was really glad that the day that we cut it with Brittany Haas playing fiddle and Jordan playing mandolin, Paul who was on bass, and Gil and I had tried to cut it a few times as a trio and we thought, ‘We probably need to try this with a few other instruments.’ It was great when we got …”
“We couldn’t quite get liftoff,” adds Welch.
“When we got done and we were like, ‘Well, that was 11 minutes,’ and they didn’t think that it was,” laughs Rawlings. “They were like, “Really? Seems really short.”
“They had no idea,” says Welch.
“I was like, ‘Oh, maybe that’s a good sign’,” notes Rawlings.
And that seems to sum up Nashville Obsolete. It is full of beautifully crafted songs, complete with that epic ‘The Trip’ – songs that are timeless that they fit perfectly into the Gillian Welch / David Rawlings continuum, which can never be obsolete.
Nashville Obsolete is out now on Acony Records. Gillian Welch and the David Rawlings Machine are touring Australia now.