Taking the Lead

Gillian Welch's almost-silent partner leads a true "supergroup" in the Dave Rawlings Machine

Dave Rawlings is best known as the longtime musical partner of Americana songstress Gillian Welch and as a producer and cowriter for artists unafraid of a little twang in their tunes, including Ryan Adams and Bright Eyes.

Comfortable playing second fiddle to Welch on stage or toiling in the shadows of a recording studio, he's also led his own band, the Dave Rawlings Machine, for nearly a decade. Welch is the sole other permanent member, and there's only been one album released — 2009's Friend of a Friend. But late last year, Rawlings decided he'd like to tour a bit and put together an iteration of the Machine featuring an incredible crew of musicians. Punch Brother Paul Kowert, former Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson and a fellow named John Paul Jones (yes, that would be Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones) are all part of the Machine again for a short stint on the road in 2014, fleshing out the guitar/vocal interplay he and Welch have showcased for years.

Seeing his name on the marquee still isn't routine for Rawlings — he jokes, with a distinct high-pitched laugh, that there are "at least two people in the band I'd rather hear sing than myself" — but he loves the ability of the Machine to take his songs to places impossible for he and Welch to find as a duo.

"It's been easier each run as we've been finding our way as a band," Rawlings says of leading the current Machine. "I've grown into this a little bit over the years. The role of lead singer is one thing, but the role of being kind of a bandleader is more natural. Working with Gillian, or producing records, I'm used to thinking about a whole picture, or a whole group, and how it will sound at a given moment."

The response to the recent shows has been overwhelming to the jocular Rhode Island native, now sporting a slight Nashville accent. The biggest difference between the Dave Rawlings Machine and what he and Welch typically do "lies in how we have to alter what we do to fit in with three other musicians." And playing with Jones, Kowert and Watson, as well as Welch, well, "I'd be a fool not to do that as often as possible," Rawlings says.

The Inlander asked Rawlings to describe what each "part" of the Machine brings to the group:

Paul Kowert

"If JPJ and Paul and I are just picking out a tune in a circle, Paul can keep up with anything we can play, improvising all together," Rawlings says of the classically trained double bassist. "He's got the ear and the ability to stay right with you, which is really a shocking thing on the upright, a challenging, physical instrument to play. There aren't that many guys in the world who have that kind of ability."

Willie Watson

"We've always had a similar appreciation for old-time music up through the early folk records," Rawlings says of Watson, whose debut solo album Rawlings produced earlier this year. "Willie is a terrific singer; he's vastly overqualified to be singing baritone to me. With this little group, I didn't know how it would all fit when we started. Willie played some guitar, and some banjo, and then he started playing a little fiddle. He definitely brings that old-time spice, which is great."

John Paul Jones

"He's always had a real love of acoustic music, and he's a really talented mandolin player," Rawlings says of Jones, who took a break from composing an opera to join the Machine on this tour. "I have a little cross-picking thing I do on the guitar, and he does a similar thing on the mandolin. We played a little the first day we met, and we immediately sort of felt our two instruments and two styles fell in nicely together. That interplay, that ability for one of us to be soloing and the other to be trading off, that's one of my favorite things about playing with the Machine — when he and I get really stirred up. For me, it's hard to believe it happens, let alone happens on a nightly basis."

Gillian Welch

"We've always been interested in the fact that if we take a song and I sing lead on it, as opposed to Gillian, there's just a different feel to how we play," Rawlings says. "That's kind of why we started doing [the Machine] in 2005. I joke that the Machine is just like our other band, but with a worse lead singer. We're both big fans of what we call 'squirrely, male lead singers,' not card-carrying, world-class vocalists. And if you think of people that sing that way, one of the things that makes it work is really nice-sounding harmony singing. And that's what Gill does that really makes this all work." ♦

Dave Rawlings Machine • Tue, Sept. 23, at 8 pm • $32.50 • All-ages • Bing Crosby Theater • 901 W. Sprague • bingcrosbytheater.com • 227-7638

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Sat., Feb. 4, 8 p.m.
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About The Author

Dan Nailen

Dan Nailen is the managing editor of the Inlander, where he oversees coverage of arts and culture. He's previously written and edited for The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Weekly, Missoula Independent, Salt Lake Magazine, The Oregonian and KUER-FM. He grew up seeing the country in an Air Force family and studied...