The Champion: David Rawlings Steps Out Front (Relix Revisited)
He saw an ad in the paper: WORKING COUNTRY BAND NEEDS GUITAR PLAYER. He tried out and the band hired him. At 17, Rawlings was the lead guitar player in Silver Steel, a group of older men, playing country bars throughout New England. And a lot of Emmylou Harris tunes.
He still didn’t fancy himself a professional musician. He spent a year at the University of Richmond as an English major before he realized that he’d already taken every music class that the school had to offer. He was terrified. He knew he’d better go to music school and he enrolled at Berklee, in Boston.
That’s where he met Welch. The two hung with a bluegrass clique of about ten students. Rawlings was a little intimidated by his peers, but he sharpened his chops in the bars. At school, he was the guy that you called to play lead on a Linda Ronstadt or Chuck Berry tune.
He was playing with a high caliber working country band, too, as well as punk and bluegrass bands and school ensembles. It was, he says, “the only way I think I got decent enough to become a professional musician.” He didn’t finish his degree. Instead, one night, after one last gig with John Hicks and Revolution, he got in the car, and—at 2 a.m.—lit out for Music City.
“I just started playing with as many people as I could, all these singer/songwriters and kids who had moved there at the same time—but I was sort of a weird hired gun like I’d been at Berklee. I’d go and learn someone’s six songs and go and play their gig.”
Welch was already in Nashville, playing with a group of other musicians, including some Berklee classmates. Rawlings added hot Telecaster leads to her earliest demos. He thought that the only way for Welch to overcome performance anxiety was to play at as many open mic nights as she could. He felt bad for her, waiting alone for painful hours through singer/songwriter nights to play one song. So he started going along. And when the rules allowed, they played together.
Rawlings and Welch were both “crazy about” brother bands—The Monroe Brothers, The Delmore Brothers, The Blue Sky Boys and others who had gotten big on AM radio in the 1930s—and they would sing those songs as duets. Rawlings didn’t like flat-picked guitar in a big ensemble—he thought that it was overpowered by the banjo, the fiddle and the mandolin.
“If you listen to The Monroe Brothers as a two-piece, or you listen to The Delmore Brothers with a tenor guitar—I knew that the guitar had more of a chance. And I guess that I was always sort of going for that somewhere in my head. I thought that music was supposed to sound like ‘Cortez the Killer.’ It was supposed to go pshhhhhh”—he makes the sound of expanding space—“and have this incredible sense of space and mystery, and that brother team stuff is closer to that.”
They’d found their sound. They started gigging. They decided, consciously, that their musical entity would revolve around Welch. Rawlings was happy to play the sideman role. It was what worked. He talks about Welch’s gifts with a deep respect.
“We got good information that when she was singing, her songs always went over best,” he says. “People believed her when she told her stuff, which was the thing that you can’t teach and the thing that makes you an artist.”
Rawlings pays close attention to what makes people stop and listen, or get up and dance or shout for more. If he hadn’t found music, he’s sure that he would have wound up in advertising. He enjoys using words to shape perception. It figures strongly into how he writes songs—and how he picks them.
The jug punk stomper “It’s Too Easy” may not have made it onto Friend of a Friend if Rawlings (on banjo) and Old Crow Medicine Show fiddler Ketch Secor hadn’t played it one night while out busking for beer money on the streets of Nashville.
“We were basically singing ‘Rocky Top.’ We might have sung ‘Wagon Wheel’—their song—and ‘It’s Too Easy’ and a bunch of other stuff, but I think that those three songs were the only ones that stopped people or got money. Busking is a wonderful indicator. If you can make somebody stop, or take a dollar out of their pocket, then you’ve got something.”
The Old Crows sing and play all throughout Friend of a Friend, lending it a deep, old-time jug band feel. Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench sits in, as does Bright Eyes organist Nate Walcott and veteran drummer Karl Himmel. Rawlings plays everything but the fiddle. There’s a string section in there, too.
Rawlings and Welch are the core—swapping harmonic places, so that Rawlings sings lead melody, and Welch sings on high. When they perform the song “Method Acting”—Conor Oberst’s reflection on artistic frustration (which slips, effortlessly, into ‘Cortez the Killer’)—it’s reminiscent of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. But the vocal pairing didn’t always work.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
Ron Sexsmith visits the Relix office to perform a tune from his latest record Forever Endeavor.
Crystal Bowersox stops by Relix to perform a song from her new album, All That For This.
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