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Best known as Gil­lian Welch’s right-hand man, David Rawl­ings is now ready to put his name on it. ‘I’ve got­ten a lit­tle more com­fort­able with be­ing out front,’ he tells Lau­ren Mur­phy

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC - Poor David’s Al­manack is out now on Acony Records

If you’re go­ing to go to the trou­ble of watch­ing a to­tal so­lar eclipse, it might as well be in the mid­dle of a corn­field in Ne­braska. “I had never seen to­tal­ity, only a par­tial one,” says David Rawl­ings from a ho­tel room in Min­nesota. “It was in­de­scrib­able. As some­one said to me, it’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween a hot dog and a hog.”

Such evoca­tive im­agery off­set by a grounded sense of hu­mour sums up Rawl­ings pretty well. The Rhode Is­land-born song­writer has been play­ing gui­tar since 16. He at­tended the Berklee School of Mu­sic, where he met his soul­mate in life and mu­sic, class of 1992 grad­u­ate Gil­lian Welch. The pair later moved to Nashville, did the dive-bar cir­cuit and forged a record­ing and song­writ­ing part­ner­ship that be­gan with Re­vival in 1996 and has since spanned a back cat­a­logue re­leased un­der var­i­ous names: most of them Welch’s and some of them as Dave Rawl­ings Machine.

When Rawl­ings speaks about his mu­sic it is al­ways us­ing the terms “we” and “our”. Poor David’s Al­manack is their eighth col­lab­o­ra­tion and the first they’ve put out as David Rawl­ings.

“The only thing that I can point to that could maybe in some way jus­tify the name change was that I was the sole writer on five of the songs,” he says. “I’ve al­ways en­joyed writ­ing with other peo­ple but I think I’d just got­ten a lit­tle more com­fort­able with be­ing out front.

“The pic­ture that was cre­ated when we thought ‘David Rawl­ings – Poor David’s Al­manack’ was very in keep­ing with this record, and with the folk and singer-song­writer tra­di­tions that our mu­sic comes out of. When I think about my record col­lec­tion, it’s lit­tered with peo­ple who just per­form un­der their names, [like] Bob Dylan and Neil Young. It seemed like it was time to join those ranks, y’know? Or to take a lit­tle step to­wards them.”

Life­time achieve­ment

The al­bum, recorded at their Wood­land Sound stu­dio in East Nashville, and which also fea­tures past and present mem­bers of Old Crow Medicine Show and in­die-folk band Dawes, came to­gether more quickly than any of their pre­vi­ous re­leases, de­spite the fact they were con­cur­rently writ­ing for a new Welch al­bum.

“I think five of the songs ended up be­ing cut in a day, in about five hours. We weren’t sure if we should even go ahead and put it out,” he says. “The ma­te­rial had a sort of struc­tural sim­plic­ity and was so tied to the folk tra­di­tion that I just wasn’t sure. It didn’t seem like any­thing any­one I knew was do­ing at this point in time, but we thought, ‘well, maybe that’s be­cause no­body wants to hear it’.”

Rawl­ings and Welch’s role in shap­ing mod­ern Amer­i­can folk mu­sic has not gone un­no­ticed. In 2015, with both still in their 40s, they were pre­sented with a life­time achieve­ment award for song­writ­ing at the Amer­i­cana Honors and Awards.

“It was a won­der­ful thing to get, but I also felt like, well, we’re sort of just get­ting started ... I hope this doesn’t mean you want us to stop?” he says, laughing. “But ob­vi­ously, if you take a mo­ment to stop and re­ally think about it, you can be over­whelmed by it. It’s the same thing when­ever you meet some­one who was in­flu­enced [by you], or their mu­sic was shaped in some way by what you do. The only way I’ve ever known to re­spond to that mo­ment is to think of the mu­sic that in­spired me as a young man . . . You re­alise that you’ve be­come a link in the chain. And so you just have to say ‘thank you’ and let peo­ple know that that’s the rea­son to do it.”

Princely gui­tar

When it comes to gui­tar, Rawl­ings pays homage to the tra­di­tion but also draws in­flu­ence from other gen­res. He tells a story about Pur­ple Rain sub­con­sciously in­flu­enc­ing his solo on Gil­lian Welch’s song Reve­la­tor; about Chet Baker’s trum­pet play­ing in­flu­enc­ing the im­pro­vi­sa­tional na­ture of his play­ing; and about em­u­lat­ing Johnny Marr’s lay­er­ing tech­nique to cre­ate at­mos­phere within a song.

His love of The Smiths is well-doc­u­mented: Ryan Adams’s de­but solo al­bum from 2000, Heart­breaker, opens with a stu­dio snip­pet ti­tled An Ar­gu­ment with David Rawl­ings Con­cern­ing Mor­ris­sey, which leads into a song they wrote to­gether, To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High).

“Ryan and I had talked about how much we loved Mor­ris­sey be­fore that,” he says. “That song got started one night at a party at our house; we were jam­ming, and that kind of popped out. I talked to him a cou­ple days later and said ‘We should fin­ish that song we were writ­ing’ and Ryan said ‘What song?’ ”

He’s mo­men­tar­ily caught off guard when I ask if he is where he thought he would be all those years ago when he first rolled into Nashville.

“Just yes­ter­day we pulled into the fes­ti­val very early in the morn­ing be­cause it was the only time to do a sound­check. The XM ra­dio was on and it was play­ing a track that we played on; it was the very last record that Ralph Stan­ley made. Lis­ten­ing to it, I couldn’t be­lieve that that was my voice and Gil­lian’s voice and that I was play­ing clawham­mer banjo that was do­ing the job on a Ralph Stan­ley record,” he chuck­les.

He pauses again. “But . . . I don’t re­ally feel any dif­fer­ently than I did on the day I moved to Nashville, want­ing to play my gui­tar and sing and make mu­sic for a liv­ing at what­ever level I could. So the fact that I’m speak­ing to you from a ho­tel room some­where, where to­mor­row I’ll go over to a sound­check and get ready to put on a show some­where? That’s ex­actly where I thought I’d be.

“If I was lucky, it’d be out of town – or else I’d be wak­ing up in my town and work­ing my day job, but wait­ing to go out and play a gig that night. The first time I ever played a gig on gui­tar was with this coun­try band when I was 16 or 17. I learned 30 or 40 songs, and they gave me $65. I thought ‘$65? I’ll never work an­other job in my life!’ ”

I think five of the songs ended up be­ing cut in a day, in about five hours. We weren’t sure if we should even go ahead and put it out

David Rawl­ings ‘I don’t re­ally feel any dif­fer­ently than I did on the day I moved to Nashville.’ Be­low, with Gil­lian Welch

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