In a cluttered music-media landscape, thousands of bands are jockeying for eyes and ears wherever they can get them: Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, Facebook, email blasts from a public relations professional. It helps if you have a hook, a convenient "this sounds like this thing you already like."
I've written about a lot of music that falls under the big tent of country, bluegrass, folk, Americana, and so on, and I receive a high volume of press releases attending to those tastes. A common "if-you-like-X" point of comparison in these overtures is Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. More specifically, the Welch-Rawlings axis has become a sort of shorthand for gal-guy duos who play acoustic guitars and write songs together.
It makes sense that young bands would want to hitch their wagons to two of their field's best-known names, and arguably, two of the United States' most skilled living songwriters. But what this comparison ignores is the unique relationship between Rawlings, Welch, and their music.
Though they have discrete bodies of work, both Rawlings and Welch make essential contributions to each other's songs. Rawlings's songs wouldn't be the same without Welch's keen harmonies, and his own vocals and guitar playing lend Welch's material even more haunting heft. They're two halves of the same beating heart. When they first started playing together, Rawlings and Welch were inspired by tightly harmonized acoustic duos of the 1930s. They felt like music had moved on quickly from there, and that they had plenty of room to explore.
"We thought that it was a cool jumping-off place. Certainly, you think about people who did a great job as a duo—someone like Simon and Garfunkel, but that was one instrument, primarily," Rawlings says. "We just felt like there was more fertile ground there that had sort of been left."
Though it was Welch's name and photograph on the covers of records like Revival, Hell Among the Yearlings, and Time (The Revelator), she and Rawlings still worked on songs as a team, equal partners in creativity.
"We felt it was our music, but with Gil singing lead," he says. (Welch was unavailable to say her piece on the matter.)
Rawlings says that, early in his career, he was more focused on being a great guitar player than a songwriter. But he accumulated a respectable batch of songs he liked, and in 2009 released Friend of a Friend as Dave Rawlings Machine. Welch still makes essential appearances on Rawlings's records—she co-authored Friend of a Friend's sparkling "Ruby," played drums on much of 2015's Nashville Obsolete, and sings harmonies all across his catalog.
But the lines between a Welch song and a Rawlings song have always been more than a bit blurry. Rawlings says that even though they've both connected deeply to particular songs they've written together, they've usually been able to figure out who should take the lead; doubtless, there's a bit of intimate mystery in deciding what songs end up where.
"There's been a little sleight of hand over the years," Rawlings admits. He points to songs like "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll" and "The Way It Will Be" as prime examples. Though they're both Welch songs in name, Rawlings is actually the one leading the melody on the former, and the two evenly split the vocals on the latter. On Poor David's Almanack, released in August, they stretch their duets even further.
"It was a lot of fun to have something like 'Cumberland Gap,' where we swapped off the vocal, where we're both kind of singing some. That's a brand new kind of feeling," Rawlings says.
Some of the evolution of Welch's and Rawlings's "solo" vehicles has reflected their own natural growth as songwriters and musicians. Rawlings says it used to be that, if they wrote a song they weren't sure about recording for themselves, they'd give it to another artist. "Dry Town" went to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, "Wichita" to Tim and Mollie O'Brien, and Emmylou Harris did Welch's "Orphan Girl" for 1995's Wrecking Ball, seven months before Welch released the song under her own name. But Rawlings says that he and Welch have gotten to a point in their creative relationship where, if they write a song they like, they can figure out a way for one of them to keep it.
"The most exciting thing to me is if Gillian and I get something that kind of has the best of both of us in it. People feel that. Some of the songs we've written together have taken such interesting twists and turns and paths to get where they get." Rawlings says.
With a new Welch record in the works—Rawlings says they hope to issue it this year—the duo will continue to follow their winding, inextricably connected paths toward gorgeous new places.