Fourteen years, give or take, is a long time to be the guy off to one side, but Dave Rawlings, the guitarist/songwriter who’s been accompanist to Gillian Welch since the mid-’90s, is a studiously pragmatic musician. Welch’s voice and restless fluency in any number of Americana stylings — folk, old-timey, a little rock ’n’ roll, gospel — is and always has been the centerpiece of the partnership. But Rawlings also bears the sensibilities of a producer — he has worked in that role in both this context as well as prior work with Old Crow and Robyn Hitchcock — and he knows when a song just can’t be wrapped about Gillian.
Enough time goes by, and eventually there’s a body of material that suggests a reversal of roles. Rawlings as lead, Welch as harmony. And so Friend of a Friend, credited to his part-time band of musical friends Dave Rawlings Machine, found its way to the shelves last November, to the surprised puzzlement of Welch-watchers who had been expecting a new Gillian album — and had been waiting six years for it.
“There’s always been a lot of songs that have been partially finished, or completely finished, that we would discard because they didn’t suit what we were doing with Gillian, even though we might like them.”
And no disappointment. Rawlings takes gentle charge of the proceedings, his precise and somewhat reedy vocals carrying through the lush crooner “Ruby,” an affecting solo take on the ballad “I Hear Them All,” a grassy turn on “It’s Too Easy” and a hint of sly irony on the old-timey railroad allegory “Monkey and the Engineer.” Instrumentation by Rawlings and Welch and some Old Crow friends, as well as Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers, Karl Himmel and Bright Eyes’ Nate Walcott.
More or less, this is material that most Welch fans will find familiar. More or less.
We mentioned to Rawlings that we noted two distinctly different reactions to the album’s wide stylistic embrace — a lot of the critics, for what it’s worth, appreciated and lauded the record for its graceful dodging and weaving between folk and Appalachia, while some of the rank and file wished they could have heard an entire record of solo ballads or bluegrass raves or parlor crooners, a deeper dive into the subgenres represented here. We asked Rawlings about that.
“A lot of time when you’re working on a record, you’re truly just trying to finish the record any way you can. You don’t have as many options as people might think. And one of the things I used on the record as a benchmark that I’ve used other times is just whether I think the songs hold up. And once I’m committed to a song, any way I can get that song to tape, so you can listen to it beginning to end, I’m pretty happy with it.
“I don’t really think the record was too disjointed, because there’s really nothing stylistically on that record that we haven’t touched on at one time or another. I mean, there was a version of ‘Ruby’ with electric guitars and drums that got cut, and that would have taken us pretty far afield. And that sort of introspective, solo version of ‘I Hear Them All’ was a surprise to me since I had expected that would be a duet track with Gillian and I. You know, some people have more specific tastes than musicians themselves actually have, but it didn’t feel like it was that far afield to me.”
For all the effortless buoyancy that Rawlings displays here (more than one observer couldn’t resist expressing their disbelief that this was only Rawlings’ first solo outing), he is also a meticulous technician (he and Welch met while they were both studying at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music), with the pitiless ear of the guy behind the soundboard, watching the clock and calling takes. We wondered if he appreciated the role of actually producing himself for once.
“Absolutely, that was a shift. I don’t think I would have been able to do it had I not worked with the Crows and Robyn Hitchcock and Gillian to be aware of what the producer’s job was, enough to keep it separate from whatever artistic job I was trying to do. You know, I would listen to my voice, or listen to the tapes back, and think, ‘what do we do with this poor guy to make it all work?’ With Gillian … y’know, Gillian is just a huge talent, and there’s lots of ways to make good records on Gillian, but like anyone else, there’s ways to make bad records on her as well, and we’ve gone through that, where you listen to the way she sings or plays something and you just say, ‘Wow, that just doesn’t work.’ And you know, that’s your job. To find the stuff that sets off what someone does best, and not to be too put off or discouraged by the stuff that doesn’t work.
“Because, in the world of music, the stuff that doesn’t work is of no import. It just doesn’t matter. Like, it may be that on this green earth, there may have been only one way the Kingsmen were going to get ‘Louie Louie’ to sound like that, and be a big hit. They may have tried a hundred times and failed, but the fact that they got it that one time is all that mattered.”
Rawlings also expressed delighted surprised when Friend of a Friend was nominated for no less than four Americana Music Association Awards last month — the Machine up for duo/ group, “Ruby” for song of the year, the CD for album of the year and Rawlings himself for instrumentalist of the year — and none of this false modesty stuff either. Rawlings seriously didn’t see that one coming.
“I would be lying if I said I thought that anyone would even notice that this record came out. You know, when we finished it, we just said, ‘Well, it’s done and it’s not terrible, let’s just throw it out there and see what happens.’ So, for it to be recognized is a great thrill and a surprise. I didn’t expect it at all.”
Rawlings brings the Machine (with some friends) to Chautauqua, and then plays Telluride the next night.
“I remember the first time we played Telluride, a decade or more ago, we showed up and they put us in a trailer and told us they’d come and get us when it was time to go on, and then they never came to get us,” he laughed. “But … Telluride’s always a blast.”
And finally, the question that’s dogged Rawlings since last November when he started promoting Friend of a Friend. What about the Gillian record? Seven years is a long time in the oven.
“You know, when people ask me when the Gillian record will come, I tell them, ‘On the happiest day of my life.’ We were in the studio right up to the moment when we left for the tour, and two days after Telluride, or however long it takes to drive to Nashville, we’ll be back in there. There’s still maybe a song or two to be written, but … we’re closing in on it.”