We’re coming up on a year since the release date of A Friend of A Friend, the first of what will hopefully be many albums from the Dave Rawlings Machine. I hope you’ll pardon the late review.
It’s hard to talk about David Rawlings without talking about Gillian Welch; the two met at Berklee, and they’ve been playing together ever since. Before last year, Rawlings was probably best known as Welch’s lead guitarist and harmony singer — though he does get some of the best lines in Alec Wilkinson’s 2004 piece from the New Yorker:
Rawlings’s ear for harmonic possibilities is impish. He does not always match Welch’s phrasing. His line sometimes anticipates what Welch is singing, then meets hers and continues in another direction. He likes intervals that are closer than those commonly used. At certain moments of tension, their voices seem to be leaning against each other, like cards in a card house, which is a bluegrass effect.
Rawlings is a strikingly inventive guitarist. His solos often feature daring melodic leaps. He uses passing tones as signal elements of a solo rather than relying on them merely to bridge chord changes, and there is an obstinate, near-vagrant quality of chromatic drifting to his playing–of his proceeding with harmonic ideas at a different pace and perhaps even in a different direction from the song’s changes. He uses double and triple stops and open strings for dramatic effect. Often, he leaves an open string ringing as a drone against which he plays a note that conflicts with the chord the drone refers to. He likes to go as far out on a limb as he can before figuring out how to get back. …In the dressing room afterward, I asked Rawlings how he would describe his playing, and he said that he simply has a fondness for certain notes and he finds ways to play them. When I asked which notes they were, he shrugged and said, “The ghostly ones.”
A college roommate introduced me to Gillian Welch. On the days she cleaned, she played Otis Redding; on the days it rained, she played Welch. Soon I was playing Welch for myself. My favorite album of hers is still 2001’s Time (The Revelator), with its slow, dark look at American history, culture, and creativity. “Revelator” is my favorite track, largely because of what Wilkinson describes about the way David Rawlings plays. The harmonic choices Rawlings makes are chromatic and bizarre, and yet astonishingly obvious once you let yourself sink into the song. Even as many times as I’ve listened to the song, I still feel that slight itchy twinge in the middle of my spine as Rawlings plays notes that aren’t involved in I, IV, or V chords for that scale, and the twinge doesn’t go away — it’s punctuation for the lyrics, added embellishment that just adds to the feeling of unsettlement that we’re supposed to be getting. With “Revelator”, the song is a full environment, a place to get lost. As the opening track for an album, it’s a powerful way to set a tone: when everything’s crooked, the way in front of us isn’t clear. Welch and Rawlings force new lenses on us as they show us an American music that we think we maybe used to know, once upon a time.
For all of that, though, Welch’s music is strikingly introverted and solitary. Even the more upbeat songs trend toward stories about outcasts, whether the farm boy of “Red Clay Halo” or the acoustic musician of “I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll”.
This is one reason why I reacted with such sudden, strong delight to A Friend of A Friend a year ago. (It’s still the only album that’s ever pulled me to the brink of calling out from work solely so I could listen to it all day without interruption.) The title of the album explains why: where Welch’s music meditates, looking inward, Dave Rawlings Machine is about rambunctious sociability, built into a network. These are the songs you get from a friend of a friend. It’s still an American music that you’re pretty sure you used to know, but the auditory references are closer to hand — “Ruby”, the first track, pinches the melody from “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites; the requisite Elvis Presley nod lurks cheerfully in “Sweet Tooth” — and the music is just plain happier.
I didn’t know I thought Welch’s music was so solitary until I heard A Friend of A Friend, but now I see it — and the best kind of music is the kind that makes you reflect differently on something you thought you knew. Like “Revelator”, Rawlings uses those different lenses to force a different perspective both on his collaborations with Gillian Welch, as well as the cover songs on the album and his versions of the songs he co-wrote with Ryan Adams, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Conor Oberst. In doing so, Rawlings takes a broader view on the world as a whole: while both Welch and Rawlings perform songs about people, Welch’s songs largely focus on how a protagonist reacts to his or her world, and Rawlings’s protagonists react by participating and interacting. His instrumental choices more closely mirror a traditional string band, as well, and in concert he serves as central force directing Welch as well as assorted members of Old Crow Medicine Show.
That aspect of sociability shouldn’t be ignored, either. David Rawlings has a broad lineup on A Friend of A Friend as well as in his live shows consisting of collaborators he’s worked with for years, and part of what makes Dave Rawlings Machine such a joy to watch on stage is the level of implicit trust in the ensemble, no matter who’s in it. Rawlings actively tries to surprise his bandmates with song choice, which makes for amazing improvisation and raucous, gleeful spontaneity on stage.
The first show after the release of A Friend of A Friend was at the Melting Point in Athens, Georgia, and I was there. They went on an hour late — because, Rawlings said, he was trying to make a set list and eventually just threw up his hands and figured it’d all work out somehow. The result then, and in every tape I’ve heard and show I’ve seen since, was something only slightly more formal than a jam session — which is important.
You can argue the finer points of this until you’re blue in the face, but there’s still a big kernel of truth to the statement that string band music, old-time music, country-western, bluegrass, blues, jazz, folk, everything that falls under the broad purview of Americana — it all started as music played with portable instruments by people who used music as a social function. Making music was their way of having fun with friends and neighbors after a long, hard day of work.
This is the particular part of American music that Dave Rawlings Machine captures that Gillian Welch doesn’t address. This kind of music, no matter what the subject matter or emotion conveyed, is and always has been for being social. It’s about observing, interacting with, and responding to the world around you, as gorgeous, amazing, depressing, heartbreaking, and uplifting as it can get. Warts and all.
Let’s not forget what a machine is: it’s something that someone builds that performs a function. The Dave Rawlings Machine makes music about living socially in a rough world.
And it’s great.