Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch came up with the title for their newest album with the Dave Rawlings Machine, Nashville Obsolete, when the two discussed the idea of running a fictitious business in their basement studio. “We thought, oh, we should have a little store that sells things nobody needs anymore, VHS tapes and cassette tapes and typewriter ribbon, ordered by catalog only,” he said. “And we’d have a slogan: If you don’t need it, we’ve got it.”
Somewhat tongue-in-cheek though the title is — it’s also Rawlings’s way of poking fun at the pair’s two-decade-long career, long enough to qualify for rock obsolescence — Nashville Obsolete is a fitting title for a band that plays in a bygone style, writing of an America that time has obscured. The new album is a paean to a kind of country that modernity is quickly transforming. “Nashville is a vastly different place than it was six or seven years ago. There are buildings and gigantic cranes there now that would have been impossible to imagine before,” he said.
Yet whether they perform as the Machine or as Gillian Welch (nominally one person, but onstage, a symbiotic two), they are both preservationists and inventors. They have a keen ear for acoustics and a great sensitivity to thematic transmission, finding new ways to say old things and vice versa. At Welch’s recent show at the Lobero on October 1, the duo finished the night with a cover of “Long Black Veil” sans amplification, just singing out into the dark.
Rawlings has an affinity for anachronistic sounds; he prefers the soft fidelity of cassette tapes over the ear-blast of brightly digitized music, and he loves to perform in halls like the Lobero that were designed for intimate acoustic shows. Educated at Berklee College of Music, where he met Welch, he is a student of folk and pop music, but he distinguishes between the study of music and its creation. “You work very hard in a very analytical way, and all of a sudden when you’re walking or brushing your teeth, the brain will put the puzzle pieces together unbeknownst to you; but you have to spend all this miserable time getting nowhere until your brain will turn something out,” he said.
As the Machine, Rawlings is certainly cranking out good ideas. More rollicking and full-bodied than his sparser work with Welch, his albums have garnered worldwide praise with their beautiful guitar parts and songwriting. Though to the outside world Gillian Welch and the Dave Rawlings Machine are distinct acts, “There’s less of a shift of spotlight in our minds,” Rawlings said. The two enjoy interchangeability between the stage acts, with Welch taking on backing vocals to Rawlings’s lead for the Machine, though she sometimes fronts on a few songs.
Rawlings admits their upcoming performance on October 18 will be a bit of a “rough-and-tumble show,” being the first of a many-month tour with an all-new array of musicians. “Take it easy on me,” Rawlings asks the people of Santa Barbara. With the new backing band, he promises something that has never been heard before.
When not touring or writing, Rawlings enjoys taking spins in vintage American cars like his ’65 Chevy Impala, another relic from the past. He notes the strange way in which endurance itself has become obsolete, as more and more things are built to break. Were he, in fact, a machine, he supposes he would be a household music maker. “I don’t know how many strings it would have or how it would work, but at least it wouldn’t be a farting gnome or something like that,” he said.
Fortunately for fans, this Machine is functioning at full power, producing some of the best Americana and country music of our time. Even when this Machine breaks down, going as most do into mechanical obsolescence, it’s likely that the music of Rawlings and Welch, like the best country music, will outlast many changing seasons and remain relevant for decades to come.
Dave Rawlings Machine plays the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Sunday, October 18, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $40. Call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for more information.