Published Sep 21, 2015Dave Rawlings is talking about how Nashville is booming: the population seems to have doubled in the past few years, putting the place on the map for people who aren't even interested in songwriting, and the last time he drove out on a big loop where you can see the city, he saw a dozen or so cranes erecting skyscrapers on different sites.
"Nashville is not one for historic preservation," he tells Exclaim!
Rawlings, the lesser-known but integral half of a partnership with Gillian Welch that has spanned seven albums and nearly two decades, is tangentially describing Nashville Obsolete, the title of the duo's second album together under the Dave Rawlings Machine moniker, a side-project in which Rawlings sings lead and the pair explore different band arrangements than they would on a Gillian Welch record.
"We're in this old recording studio, and the equipment we use to make records is largely if not entirely obsolete [analog tape]," he says, giggling. "To some degree the instruments we play are obsolete; music as a commodity is obsolete…
"All of these things tied in but really we were just laughing because we had a little space at the bottom of the studio and we thought, 'Oh, we should open a little storefront down there and call it Nashville Obsolete and just sell things that people don't need,' because we're endlessly needing to machine a little part for something or source something from somewhere in the country that hasn't been made for 50 years. We thought it would be funny to sell things like typewriter ribbon, buggy whips, any number of things that have come and gone. It would be mail order catalog only — one of the big old-fashioned catalogues, probably be open by appointment only. It was 90 percent a joke, but we actually had someone who was interested in doing it, so we would talk about it."
Rawlings adds, more seriously, "It definitely connected to the fact that the town had changed, but that wasn't the primary thrust of it. Music has changed and we've changed. We've been doing it a long time. You could call me a 'Nashville Obsolete' if you wanted to use it as a noun."
(The obsolete technology conceit of the record extends to its cover art — tintype photography by Frank Hamrick — and the formats it is available in: cassette and CD.)
It also sounded title-like to Rawlings in the way that for instance Blonde on Blonde does — the new record is heavily indebted to both Bob Dylan and Neil Young. "It connects to the mood and colour of the music," he says.
Unlike the first Dave Rawlings Machine album, 2009's A Friend of a Friend, which felt a bit like a compilation due to the fact that many of the songs had been written well before Welch and Rawlings decided to make a Rawlings-fronted album, and featured co-writes with Ryan Adams, Morgan Nagler and Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketcham Secor. ("It was a bit like a greatest-hits record for five records that were never made," Rawlings says.) Nashville Obsolete hangs together thematically as an album, and isn't dissimilar to a Gillian Welch record, in the sense that Rawlings and Welch co-wrote all of the tunes.
"The things we were exploring lyrically and to some degree musically were things we kept returning to," explains Rawlings, who says that he and Welch write slowly. "They weren't ideas that appeared one day and we never would have thought of again, which can happen. These tended to be larger thoughts that returned or weren't quite ripe, but we were like, 'Oh, there's something in that that I want to get right.'"
The long songs on Nashville Obsolete — "The Trip" clocks in at nearly 11 minutes and closer, "Pilgrim" is eight — concern travel; a certain wistful, mellow restlessness pervades the album.
"Our experience has largely been in interacting with artists: photographers, filmmakers, mostly musicians and seeing how their lives are lived," says Rawlings. "We became interested in this feeling that artists have to travel, have to move, emotionally or in their minds or physically. There is this constant motion that seems to be part of art, and seeing people who have stopped moving in their lives and seeing how it affected their art."
More universally, Nashville Obsolete taps into the metaphor that life is a journey. "I certainly don't think we're the first or have done the best job at explaining life as a journey," says Rawlings, laughing. "But I think it's why some of the songs have resonance for me when I sing lines or when I think of them overall."
Nashville Obsolete is out now via Acony Records.