To call Dave Rawlings one of the world's greatest living songwriters is more than lip service. It's a statement now backed by a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association, Nashville's premier booster of folk and country music not bound for pop radio.
Even though Rawlings is a recipient of an honor for a life's work, he shows no signs of stopping, and the same goes for his significant other, the equally if not more beloved Gillian Welch. Together, the two have partnered on alternating releases, beginning with Dave Rawlings Machine's 2009 A Friend of a Friend and then moving on to Welch's 2011 album, The Harrow & the Harvest, and last fall's Nashville Obsolete by the Dave Rawlings Machine.
Rawlings jokes that their folksy, unplugged style has been passed over by the trends of Music City, but the seven-song Nashville Obsolete, featuring two songs that nearly reach eight minutes long, has created subtle shifts in the country industry by reminding songwriters that their craft's roots go well beyond radio-friendly edits and beat-driven hooks.
"I don't really have a good handle on why, as we were writing this batch of songs, we got into this slightly more expansive form," says Rawlings. "I guess it's where our heads were. Once you start doing something, you want to explore it."
Consider "Short Haired Women Blues," which stretches for seven minutes across verses, pre-choruses, and choruses, and the whole area is punctuated by strings. "We were close to having a body of work that felt like a record, but there were a few songs where I just felt, 'Man, some strings would give this a color and texture and emotional feeling,'" Rawlings recalls.
When the string arranger he'd used in the past wasn't available on short notice, Rawlings hunched over a desk and learned how to write and arrange orchestral string sections on the fly. "To do strings is usually a big thing that involves sending songs to an arranger and having them give them their treatment, but I just sat down and basically didn't sleep for days and days," says Rawlings. "It was satisfying to me, because it's like you're getting to play this big instrument and control this large sound that is more than one person can play."
In many ways, this decision to arrange the strings himself became the next step in his evolution as a songwriter. "We've all heard those songs where every time the section changes, it changes a lot of things in the arrangement and it becomes a different flavor," says Rawlings, citing the Beatles in particular. "You end up remembering a song almost as much for the little cues from the different instruments as you do for the words or the chorus, which is cool."
The lyrics for Rawlings' songs often come from exploring the country — he and Welch famously drive themselves on tour. In fact, the video for the Nashville Obsolete track "The Weekend" features footage taken as the couple drove their Impala from Nashville to Los Angeles, with a filmmaker friend riding along.
"When you look out the windshield at the world going by, at the landscapes and the buildings and the people you see and the scenes you pass in the city and the scenes you pass in the country, all this stuff filters into the writing. And usually, your mind will turn to a song," Rawlings explains. "Whenever we get home and have a week or even a couple of months in one place, when we get back in the car and get outside the city-limits sign and start driving again, it's like, 'Man, I'm glad we're on the road.'"
He continues, "If you do something crazy, as we often do, like drive 2,000 miles in one stretch, you get to see the morning turn into night and the night turn into dawn. When you're driving across New Mexico and the moon is going down and the sun is coming up, you see stuff that there's no other way to see. You've got to get out there and really appreciate the beauty of the country. It's its own reward, I guess."
Rawlings also takes inspiration from his bandmates in the Machine, including Welch, violinist Brittany Haas, guitarist Willie Watson (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show), and bassist Paul Kowert of the Punch Brothers, who are also on this Friday's bill at the Charleston Music Hall.
"What [the Punch Brothers] bring to the table is the ability to orchestrate a string band in a way that nobody else has, to this point," says Rawlings, adding that the group's violinist, Gabe Witcher, for one, will likely join the Machine onstage to close the show.
"Everybody knows everybody in these two bands, so it should be a lot of fun," he promises. "It's a special event that we're each going to play a set and do a double bill, and the Music Hall is such a great venue to do something like that."