DAVE RAWLINGS and Gillian Welch took the name for their latest record from a joke, a little throwaway line that didn't get thrown away. The two have a studio in Nashville, and that studio has some space below just big enough for a storefront. The analog studio is full of outdated pieces of recording equipment, which got them laughing about all the unnecessary items they could sell. Not just unnecessary, but obsolete. And there was it was: Nashville Obsolete.
You can almost imagine the ad, read live on an old-timey radio variety show by a guy with a voice that sounds like an Instagram filter. "Nashville Obsolete: If you don't need it, we've got it. Stop and see Dave and Gillian today!" And who knows? A shop like that could work out, provided there are enough of us out there to embrace the benefits of obsolescence.
"There are times when I think things become obsolete because someone figures out a way to take less care doing something and the world follows suit," Rawlings says. "And then everything sort of falls in line behind them. A few people are left behind doing it the old way."
Which isn't to say the new ways are bad. Rawlings has musician friends who make EDM jams and pop productions. But the past works perfectly for the folk form, and Nashville Obsolete is another great folk record, because that's what Rawlings and Welch make. Then they hit the road and play great shows, like the one they will play this week in Portland.
Nashville Obsolete is the second album under the Dave Rawlings Machine name, and the first since 2009's A Friend of a Friend. Rawlings and Welch have also done five albums with Welch's name on the cover. All seven are folk records made with the kind of care and craftsmanship that made the Americana Music Association give them a lifetime achievement award for songwriting—mid-career. Robyn Hitchcock gave a speech connecting their work to Jimi Hendrix, Pixies, and "the Alpha Omega" Bob Dylan—among others. "Yet they sound like none of them," Hitchcock said.
On Nashville Obsolete, the melodies are warm as always, the music is precise, and the tone is at times unsettling but charming—even when they're singing about body snatchers lurking around little river towns. It's creepy as hell, but charming nonetheless.
It's an album of long shadows and fading light, of freight trains and harvest moons. People are wound too tightly to be in tune (save for the odd "golden summer afternoon"). Skeletons dance and mandolins are used for target practice, because "what's a bullet hole or two between friends?"
"The Trip" clocks in at 11 moody minutes. It's Welch and Rawlings building their own "Desolation Row," where boots "are cracked with road dirt and asphalt spit and broken dreams" and "it's much too hard to try to live a lie at home." Paired with the album-closing "Pilgrim (You Can't Go Home)," a theme emerges.
Rawlings and Welch have been on the road for going on 20 years. It's creatively invigorating, Rawlings says, and he's good at it. He travels light. A couple of instruments—he likes to have a banjo along with the guitars—a notebook, and a change of clothes. "I can travel like that for months and it wouldn't ever dawn on me I wanted stuff," Rawlings says.
New stuff. Old stuff. Or even obsolete stuff.