For years, Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch have worked as a team writing acclaimed and, at times, harrowing songs bridging the country music world and the back porches of Appalachia. In this context, almost exclusively, Welch has been the lead voice. It is a rare and blessed occasion when Rawlings steps in front of the microphone as anything more than a background singer. The Dave Rawlings Machine is the outlet for that twangy, nasally, slightly off-kilter voice.
"We've just done a lot of work over the years where Gillian is the lead vocalist. Doing Machine songs, we get to play slightly different feels and sounds. Which is why we like doing it," Rawlings explains by phone from his Nashville home.
In this role reversal, Welch sticks to background harmonies (and acoustic rhythm guitar), aided by guitarist Willie Watson, Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert, and fiddler Brittany Haas.
"One of the fun things about doing The Machine live is that we can have three- and four-part harmonies on a song, which is pretty fun," he says. "We end up using more harmonies because we use more people."
Just to be clear, Rawlings emphasizes that, while he enjoys stepping in front of the mic, Welch remains his first choice for most occasions.
"Personally, by and large, I would prefer Gillian sing all the songs. She has a great voice and is a great singer, which is why it's taken awhile to come around to making records [as the Machine]," Rawlings says. "We are both fans of music that is similar to what we make with the Machine. We both like men singing, voices that people don't usually consider, voices that are like squirrelly voices . . . Neil Young or Bob Dylan . . . We realize we like to make music that way, too, but of the two of us, I'm probably the better equipped to make those sounds."
Besides the harmonic changes, Nashville Obsolete, the Dave Rawlings Machine's second album, flows with a slightly more uptempo vibe (even when the lyrics are not) than Welch albums. With Welch, songs were strikingly minimalistic, inhabiting sparse landscapes and darker emotional feelings.
"A lot of the songs we do on Gillian Welch records, the fact that we make records that are pretty reductive — two instruments and two voices — we try to make this panoramic sound with two guitars. That sound is spacious and there is a haunting quality. When you play minor chords like that and the guitars are allowed to ring, there is a lot of that feeling and it ends up coloring the lyrics."
Nashville Obsolete carries darker themes as well, even if it bounces higher musically. "Bodysnatchers," which sounds like a lost Buffalo Springfield classic, wanders a dark path of small-town despair, while "The Trip" is a rambling, 10-minute-plus murder ballad channeling a languid Bob Dylan. The string-filled combo of "Short Haired Woman Blues" and "The Weekend" are love-lost weepers.
"We come out of school where we enjoy using traditional themes where we were not writing happy love songs all day long," he says. "We'll write songs about virtually any part of the human experience if it occurs to us and we think we have something to say."
Rawlings, though low-key and affable, takes obvious pride in his lyrical convergence with Welch.
"We tend to be lyric-driven when we write. The words end up being the focus," Rawlings says. "Sometimes we'll change the music to fit the words . . . to get the feeling we like."
And in the Dave Rawlings Machine, there's plenty to like.