Thank you, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, for not surfing "the banjo wave." | Music Feature | Indy Week

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Thank you, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, for not surfing "the banjo wave."


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Between songs at a sold-out and reverently quiet performance at Durham's Carolina Theatre last spring, the singer and songwriter Gillian Welch remembered an old joke.

A decade earlier, around the time O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its successful soundtrack emerged, she and partner Dave Rawlings—in Durham, standing to her right with his small-body guitar—had laughed that they would one day be forerunners of "the banjo wave," bound to overtake popular music in five-string glory. Wealth and fame would surely follow.

American folk music had fallen far from favor before the movie surprisingly helped reinvigorate America's interest in its traditional tunes. By the time Welch and Rawlings reached Durham, the situation had, of course, changed. Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers were packing arenas as bona-fide rock stars, and humble acoustics appeared in unexpected places: behind electronica beats on pop hits, in new phases of soft indie rock, in late-night television slots and awards shows. The punch line had become reality.

Having made some of the best folk LPs of the past two decades, both under Welch's name and as the Dave Rawlings Machine, Welch and Rawlings were some of this banjo wave's true pioneers and prophets. Still, here they were, filling a room only a sliver of the size those contemporary derivatives would play. Where was the money?

Not with Welch and Rawlings: During the last two decades, the pair has slowly made stunning records that feel like parts of an artistic whole, both current and time-tested, as if they'd been made yesterday or a half-century ago. Together, Welch and Rawlings are an act whose success comes not just from sales but from the steady spread of their music, meaning they're not underappreciated so much as underpaid relative to those they inspired. They never cashed in on a trend they helped launch; getting really famous had just been a funny joke, after all.

Rawlings and Welch have always operated in a methodical manner. Many bands get locked into cycles that only end when they do, pumping out record after record that will likely make little money but pushing the band on the road with hopes of breaking big or at least recouping costs. Like a singer-songwriter Bonnie and Clyde, busting you up and leaving you blindsided with their songs, Welch and Rawlings mostly tour. Their beguiling, intimate stage show has sustained them, and they stop to record a new album only when the songs are ready. Fans waited eight years for Welch's 2011 record The Harrow and the Harvest, the follow-up to 2003's Soul Journey. Dave Rawlings Machine released A Friend of a Friend in 2009, six years ahead of September's Nashville Obsolete.

An interviewer recently asked Rawlings about the title of that new one, and his response was flippant but telling. Was it blatant commentary on the tumultuous music industry? For Rawlings, that reading covered but "five percent" of the meaning. Instead, the title stemmed from another joke about starting a mail-order catalog business, Nashville Obsolete, to sell outdated equipment like typewriter ribbons and floppy disks. Rawlings did admit, though, that he feels the age of music as a commodity has ended; now, it's something many people expect instantly and for free.

Still, Welch and Rawlings persevere. A Friend of a Friend was a wonderful Dave Rawlings Machine record, featuring original material and covers of Neil Young, Bright Eyes and Ryan Adams. While those songs were thoughtful, Nashville Obsolete is a full thought. A Friend of a Friend's charming, casual jangle yields to breathtaking clarity and welcome shine. When soft strings breeze through "The Weekend" to add an extra layer of wistfulness, it's the Sunday best version of his style. It's fancy but not precious, a natural extension of what Rawlings and Welch have long done.

This uninterrupted, antique aesthetic is also apparent on the cover, an unsettling and hollow tintype. Rawlings, guitar across his lap, sits to Welch's left, with the record's other primary players standing beside them: Old Crow Medicine Show co-founder Willie Watson to the left, Punch Brother Paul Kowert to the right. You can barely make out anyone's eyes. And as if to turn their ambivalence to what's hot and dates of origin into the joke itself, Nashville Obsolete is available digitally and on CD, not the au courant LP. You can get it on tape, too, a wink to the premise of Rawlings' future emporium of the past.

But most of all, it's the songs that make Nashville Obsolete transcend ideas of time and trends: "The Trip" recalls old Appalachian ballads in its 11-minute commitment to storytelling and suspect vignettes that include "a body, a handkerchief and a hatchet from an unspeakable crime." Likewise, "The Bodysnatchers" embraces the otherworldly spookiness of old-time music. These songs haven't been squeezed into chart-ready suits.

Nashville Obsolete closes with "Pilgrim (You Can't Go Home)," an eight-minute number that begins, "'I won't get drunk no more, no more,'/The old refrain, it shines with use." It is the most direct song here, even as it philosophizes on loss and journeys. "Pilgrim" spins, eventually, to a repetitious end: "Keep rollin' down that road you're on." The line is a hopeful sentiment that feels true to the tale of Rawlings and Welch—stay on course, even if it's at least temporarily obsolete.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Time (The Revelator)"


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