David Rawlings is best known for his work with Gillian Welch, with whom he creates achingly beautiful and melancholy music. The couple were part of the Bluegrass Class of 2000 who suddenly found that they had mainstream appeal after the huge success of the Coen Brother’s ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?‘ At that point, Rawlings and Welch had already recorded two albums with legendary producer T Bone Burnett, who also produced the ‘O Brother…’ soundtrack. They weren’t exactly flying under the radar, but the impact on the Coen brothers film cannot be understated. The follow up documentary ‘Down From the Mountain,‘ followed the various artists involved in the soundtrack, including Rawlings and Welch, culminating in a concert at the Ryman in Nashville. This was wildly popular and paved the way for bluegrass-influenced bands like Nickel Creek to enjoy massive mainstream popularity in the early 00’s.
Rawlings and Welch have gone on to release seven more records together to date; four more Gillian Welch albums and three as Dave Rawlings Machine, something of an all-star group featuring, at various times, Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers), Willie Watson and Ketch Secor (OCMS), Brittany Haas (Crooked Still) and even John Paul Jones, whoever he is. Rawlings has also featured on and produced records for many well known artists including the Old Crow Medicine Show, Bright Eyes, and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek.
Rawlings himself is always incredibly humble about his work and its impact, and it’s all too easy to overlook him. His artistry cannot be overstated, however. His work with Gillian Welch is phenomenal, that much is obvious, but what makes him so effective is his restraint. He seems to have an innate understanding of good taste, hovering somewhere in the background, where you’re not entirely sure what he’s doing most of the time, then surging to the fore with some spine-tingling guitar magic. His vocal harmonies with Welch add so much soul and depth to the music, and his ever-interesting guitar arrangements fill out the sound perfectly. Welch has spoken before about having to draw a line with Burnett that they didn’t want to record with other musicians, trying to keep their sound as stripped down as possible, and what a perfect decision that has turned out to be.
Rawlings work in Dave Rawlings Machine is equally interesting and brilliant. Listening through the three records you get the sense that this is his relief from the intensity of the Gillian Welch records. There’s a lot of tracks that keep the stripped back feel, but with a folksy twist rather than an earnest melancholy. Lots of tracks are just plain strange (see ‘Money is the Milk in the Coconut’ on 2017’s ‘Poor David’s Almanac‘) and you can’t help but smile at the obvious fun he’s having. He combines this slightly kooky approach with some long and winding mood pieces with surreal imagist lyrics, it’s hard to make Dylan comparisons without rolling your eyes these days, but there are a few tracks that really do prompt them. ‘The Trip‘, the final track on ‘Nashville Obsolete‘ feels like ‘Desolation Row‘ on more drugs (actually, maybe just different drugs…), and wearing his influences on his sleeve is certainly something he’s not afraid to do, even directly covering both The Grateful Dead and Neil Young on ‘A Friend of a Friend‘.
I could go on and on about his guitar, his guitar playing, his other worldly vocal work with Welch, but I will leave it with this. The below track, ‘Ruby‘ is the opening song on ‘A Friend of a Friend,‘ and to me sums up the best of his solo work. It’s almost basic in its simplicity, but into it is woven so many touches of brilliance, and just a revelling in the joy of making music, that you can’t help but love it.