A constant in Rawlings guitar chain is a Fairchild compressor. “I’m not interested in the compression as much as the sound its transformers add to the chain,” he says. “It gives a little point to the midrange that makes it easier to poke out from Gill’s guitar and be present under the vocals.” Photo by Tim Bugbee
Ghosts glide and whisper everywhere in the music of David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. And it’s been that way since 1996, when the duo made the transition from respected Nashville songwriters to revered roots-music performers with Welch’s debut Revival. Through all their subsequent albums—five under Welch’s name and a pair, including the new Nashville Obsolete, under Rawlings’ solo nom de plume David Rawlings Machine—two things have remained constant: their twined voices and guitars, and those ghosts.
The spirits of the past have never been more present than they are in Nashville Obsolete’s “Bodysnatchers,” where Rawlings channels the Devil-obsessed Mississippi blues pioneer Skip James in his keening tenor singing. The spare pace of the guitars evokes the quiet of the plantation-era Delta at midnight. A moaning violin cuts the stillness between verses like a night bird crossing the moon, and the lyrics—filled with breath by the couple’s trademark close harmonies—spin a web of voodoo, soul-selling, and murder. If “Bodysnatchers” isn’t the perfect Southern Gothic creeper, it’s close.
But as fixated on sadness, loss, damnation, and missed opportunities as many of the Grammy-nominated duo’s compositions are, you’ll also find joy in these refracted tales from America’s past. The jig “Candy,” for one, grabs the sweet promise of life in a rural town just after World War II—a time when bluegrass was born from the melting pot of British and Appalachian folk music, blues, jazz, and chiming string bands.
Rawlings and Welch first crossed dusty paths as students at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where they formed their songwriting, performing, and romantic partnership after meeting at an audition for the school’s only country band. Born in the small colonial town of North Smithfield, Rhode Island, Rawlings fell under country’s spell in the ’70s.
“That music invaded the AM and FM radio stations to some degree, so I heard story songs and country songs since the time I was 3 years old,” he says. “I remember hearing Jim Croce, and Kenny Rogers with ‘The Gambler.’ Those songs came out of the American folk music tradition. I’m also sure that as a kid I heard ‘John Henry’ somewhere. Songs like that pulled me in.”
So did the guitarists who played them. But unlike many 6-string-fixated Berklee students, Rawlings developed a highly personal sonic perspective. The subtleties of jazz hornmen Miles Davis and Chet Baker stoked an interest in unusual intervals and subtle dissonant touches that enliven harmonies. And his guitar instructor, Lauren Passerelli, helped Rawlings bare the secrets of the mountainous multi-tracked tones of the Smiths’ Johnny Marr, another of Rawlings’ heroes.
Guitarist David Rawlings met his musical and life partner, Gillian Welch, when they were students at
Berklee College of Music. Photo by Henry Diltz
That opened Rawlings up to the world of textural music informed by harmony. And that world is where he and Welch have resided ever since. It’s the key to the rich vistas their blend of voices and guitars paints on Nashville Obsolete and elsewhere.
“I think of myself as an arranger who happens to play guitar enough that I have passable technique,” Rawlings allows. “The blend of Gillian’s guitar and my guitar is an arrangement in itself. My guitar playing is built to work with her guitar playing. Without her, I don’t know what you’d have left of me. If I started working with a different guitarist, I’d probably have to change my own playing to make it fit.”
Recorded in the duo’s Woodland Studios in East Nashville—a legendary facility with a long history of recording classic country hits—Nashville Obsolete was a mantra for the duo before it was an album title. “It crosses our minds that virtually everything we do and every tool we use is obsolete,” he observes. “The microphones, the tape we record on, the tape machines, and even the recording studio is obsolete because music is no longer supposed to be something you should spend any money making, because you can’t make any money off of it. Nashville Obsolete was a phrase we’d kicked around for a long time, so we thought it was appropriate for this batch of songs.”
We dug deeper into the making of the album when we spoke with Rawlings on a recent sunny day in Nashville.
How do you record your acoustic guitar?
The method that Matt Andrews, who has engineered most of the records I’ve done, and I came up with has been gradually dialed in over the years. I’ve always used a Sony C-37A microphone—a tube microphone made in the late ’50s and early ’60s—and an old Neve 1055 preamp module.
The sound of my and Gillian’s guitars is a combination of what bleeds through the vocal mics—we use a Neumann M49, usually—and the mics we use on our guitars. We’re usually sitting close enough that every sound blends through every microphone. So the sound is a composite.
The only other constant in my guitar chain is a Fairchild compressor I bought years ago that has a particular tone. I’m not interested in the compression as much as the sound its transformers add to the chain. It gives a little point to the midrange that makes it easier to poke out from Gill’s guitar and be present under the vocals.