Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings have always seemed content to let the grass grow beneath their feet. Eight years elapsed between Welch’s Soul Journey and its 2011 follow-up, The Harrow & The Harvest. Similarly, we haven’t heard from the Dave Rawlings Machine since 2009’s A Friend Of A Friend. Rawlings hasn’t exactly been idle during the interim, serving as customary foil to Welch and producing albums for Willie Watson and Dawes, but Nashville Obsolete nevertheless feels like it’s been a long time coming.
Thankfully, as tends to happen with Welch/Rawlings releases, it’s been well worth the wait. Most striking of all is the album’s deceptive simplicity. Rather than some painstakingly detailed production effort, you get the impression that the direct opposite is true – that Rawlings underwent a process of refinement, of paring things down to their essence, to achieve the desired impact. These are songs that largely prefer to unfurl at their own unhurried leisure, with loping chords and autumnal echoes of Harvest-era Neil Young or Dylan’s late-’60s output, chiefly John Wesley Harding.
A sense of timeless rural repose is central to the mood. It’s an album that’s all the more beautiful for its lack of clutter, allowing Rawlings’ slightly squirrelly voice to shift over flat-picked guitar and finely weighted insertions of fiddle and mandolin. There’s also a discreet string section, arranged by producer Rawlings, which posits Nashville Obsolete in a slightly more sophisticated, modernist milieu.
Some songs (true to normal code of practice, Rawlings and Welch co-wrote everything here) strain towards the epic. “The Trip” is an 11-minute meditation on identity that uses the American railroad as a rusted metaphor for escape and opportunity. It’s a song, too, about family and roots, of pride and disappointment, stuffed with rich imagery: frayed denim, boots cracked with spit and asphalt, pictures of old black men in beaver hats. “So take a trip wherever your conscience has to roam,” sings Rawlings, shadowed by a Welch harmony. “It’s much too hard to try to live a lie at home.”
“The Weekend” and “Short Haired Woman Blues” also amble beyond the five-minute mark, both complemented by gorgeous strings that frame the drama with understated grace. The latter, a lyrical tale of a girl from the Midwest with a farmboy hairdo and a cruel habit of turning men’s hearts into putty, may just be the best thing on the album. It shares its title with an old Lightnin’ Hopkins tune, but Rawlings’ “Short Haired Woman Blues” is closer to Neil Young, with its reference to harvest moons and a minor-chord intro that brings to mind “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)”. A gentle invocation of the Stones’ “Wild Horses” feeds into the chorus: “Don’t go chasing wild ponies/They’re half crazy and they run/Don’t go loving short-haired women/They’re gonna leave you cryin’/After thinking it was all in fun.”
Of course, Welch, in a reversal of the duo’s more usual roles, is a ready and natural complement to Rawlings, singing back-up vocals throughout and adding guitar and taking the odd turn on drums. Ex-Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson, whose recent Folk Singer Vol.1 was overseen by Rawlings and issued on the same Acony label that he runs with Welch, is also key here, helping to bolster the beautifully radiant harmonies. And honourable mentions go out to mandolinist Jordan Tice, Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert and fiddle player Brittany Haas, whose nuanced tones provide much of the album’s emotional heft.
As the record progresses, Rawlings and Welch begin to inject more pace, invoking the spirit of the Delmore Brothers on the bright mountain folk of “The Last Pharaoh”. There’s even room for a little novelty, with “Candy” serving as a kind of nonsense counterpart to Flatt & Scruggs’ “Hot Corn Cold Corn”, a live favourite of Welch and Rawlings. But things close with the deeper rumination of “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)”, a roving ballad that namechecks a figurative landmark of folk-blues lore, St. James Infirmary, on its eight-minute quest for salvation.
There is so much on Nashville Obsolete that impresses, but what lingers longest is a rare and persuasive ability to tap into the ageless mythos of true American folk.
What was the impetus for this album?
After touring The Harrow & The Harvest we started writing songs and it just felt as though the first couple of dominoes fell toward me, in terms of me singing. And that was combined with a feeling that we wanted to push a little differently after the last record. We decided to play a few dates, so I began looking for a new iteration of the [Dave Rawlings] Machine.
Were you after a particular feel?
The initial concept was that Gillian and I were going to record with just Paul Kowert on bass. But the songs dictated a certain other feeling. I liked the pace of them and they suited the ruminations of the lyrics. As we were writing, there were clearly some themes that kept returning and connecting to the larger skeletons of the songs.
Does it feel natural being the lead voice on an album?
Gillian’s voice has such a great quality that the more you strip away around it the better it sounds, which is why we’ve always made very sparse records. Her vocal delivery and tone, and the emotion there, just shines when you strip it bare. But when I’m singing, it’s very much back to ‘OK, how do we present this strange instrument?’ It’s frustrating at times, but it’s rewarding when you get it right. I sometimes have to force myself to remember that I spent my entire life listening to voices that other people consider strange, but which I love.
INTERVIEW: ROB HUGHES
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