Above: Musician Dave Rawlings. Below: Rawlings and partner Gillian Welch perform together onstage at the 930 Club in Washington, D.C. Photos by Kate Gardiner
Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings have been singing harmony and picking guitars together for over a decade, but almost always under the marquee of her Bluegrass star power. Although you can hear Rawlings’ twangy tenor on albums throughout Welch’s discography, he’s stayed behind the scenes, producing and co-writing with Welch.
In their latest project, the duo switch roles. As The Dave Rawlings Machine, Welch takes on a supporting role and Rawlings takes the lead.
“Part of it was a change we felt in my voice…a couple years ago, my voice changed,” says Rawlings, making a joke about late onset adolescence. The Grammy-nominated producer and writer had just never been very confident in his voice as a musical centerpiece. In the last few years, he finally became comfortable turning his mic up and others’ down.
The new project evolved over time, starting as a performance last summer when the Rawlings and Welch played at the Newport Folk Festival under the new moniker.
“It was sort of a back-handed way to play some [new] material”, he says.
That gig led to more songs, which led to some recording sessions, which eventually produced enough material for an LP.
“The moment we had 40-or-so minutes of material that we listened to and said, ‘Unless we’re mistaken, people might like this,’” explains Rawlings, was the moment when he and Welch decided to finish making what would become their 2009 album, “A Friend of a Friend.”
The change in lineup has had an unexpected benefit. When the pair were writing for Gillian’s voice, they often had to throw out songs they liked. “If I try out a guitar and it works really well for me, it probably won’t work well for Gillian, and the songs have been the same,” says Rawlings. “It’s been exciting because we’ve always discarded a lot of material we’ve written because it wasn’t a good fit.”
“I didn’t imagine I would ever in my life just play guitar and sing a song and have it turn up on a record,” he says.
Despite his modesty, the Dave Rawlings Machine has received some industry recognition. They’re up for four Americana Music Association awards this fall.
Art Beat caught up with Dave Rawlings outside 930 Club in Washington, D.C. earlier this month: