David Rawlings by Dan Miller Jan/Feb 2014 from Flatpicking Guitar

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  • November 18, 2015 10:57 PM PST
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Over the past two decades David Rawlings and Gillian Welch have gained a huge following in the worlds of folk and Americana music. Their sparse instrumentation blends perfectly with soulful voices that deliver expertly crafted lyrics in a way that is extremely captivating. It is music that penetrates and grabs hold of you. The music transports listeners back to simpler, more rugged days—be they the happiest or hardest of times. The duo’s sound is so authentic to rural Appalachia that you’d guess that they both learned how to play and sing sitting on the front porch of their respective small family farms somewhere in mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, or North Carolina. But this was not the case for either of these fine musicians.
David Rawlings grew up in Rhode Island. His family did not play music. Gillian Welch was born in New York and grew up in Los Angeles. The two met in about 1990 at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where David was studying guitar and Gillian songwriting. How can these two musicians, whose roots are so far away from the hills and hollers of the southern mountain ranges, sound like they descend from generations of old-time and bluegrass musicians of the rural south? I thought that the music would have to be part of your DNA to sound so authentic.
After speaking with David Rawlings about his background, I felt like what he has done to find his sound with Gillian is combine an enthusiastic reverence for Appalachian music with a deep connection to the sound, vibration, and soul of the music. Add to that a lot of hard work and the creative determination it took to not only find “that sound,” but to also find “their sound,” and you can start to understand how two musicians with no history in rural southern music can sound like they were born and raised with it.
After speaking with David for a couple of hours I also discovered something interesting about his approach to the guitar. For most guitar players I think that the technique that they study and gain the most proficiency with helps create a style and from that style they develop their “sound.” For David, I sense that it was the other way around. In his case, I think that the “sound” he was searching for created the guitar style. In order to better understand that statement, let’s take a look at David’s background.
Although David Rawlings is a well known guitar player with a recognizable and distinctive acoustic guitar style, he said that he actually started playing the guitar “by accident.” He remembers playing around with a ukulele when he was in grade school and he also played the saxophone in the 3rd and 4th grade, but it wasn’t until he was 15 or 16 that he started playing the guitar at the request of a friend. He remembers, “One of my best friends and I were walking home on a winter day after getting pizza. He said, ‘See if you can get your parents to buy you a guitar for Christmas so we can enter the school talent show together.’ David’s friend, Glen Chausse, planned to ask for harmonica for Christmas and wanted Dave to accompany him while he sang and played Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” in the contest.
As a sixteen-year-old kid growing up in Rhode Island in the mid-1980’s, David did not have any musical relatives, nor did he know anyone who made a living playing music. He said, “I didn’t even know that playing music for a living was a viable option.” He admits to always having been attracted to music, with a special interest in stringed instruments. He said, “I remember plucking rubber bands and stretching them out to get different sounds.” His experience with the saxophone in grade school was positive. He said, “I learned to read music and I enjoyed practicing. It wasn’t a puzzle. I could do it.” So when Glen asked him if he’d get a guitar and join him in the talent show, Dave was up for it. He said, “It wasn’t my idea to learn how to play the guitar, but I did get a guitar for Christmas.”
David’s friend Glen had introduced him to folk rock acts such as Neil Young; Crosby, Stills, and Nash; and Buffalo Springfield. David’s father introduced him to Bob Dylan. He remembers, “I was outside one day and my Dad called me in and said, ‘Listen to this!’ It was Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’ I made a mental note that my Dad liked Bob Dylan and then I gave him Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits for his birthday. He had it for about a week and then it drifted into my collection. I became a big Dylan fan.”
In preparation for the talent show with Glen, David got a Mel Bay instruction book and started working through it. He had never seen anyone playing the guitar up close, but recalls having good hand-eye coordination and that the material didn’t feel too complicated for him. The book focused on learning melodies, so David started learning how to pick leads before learning how to play chords. Although he was learning and making progress, as the talent show approached, he still had not learned anything about playing “Heart of Gold.” Luckily, he met another kid, Matt Silvia, who was able to show him how to play that tune.
Matt, a kid who was a couple of grades behind David in school, lived nearby and came from a musical family. Matt’s father, Gerry, had been a guitar teacher and Matt also had siblings who played music. Matt showed David the first lick of “Heart of Gold,” then put him in a room and said, “Practice that until you have it, then come out and I’ll show you the next lick.” David remembers, “As soon as I started playing the guitar, that is all that I wanted to do.”
David found out that Matt’s father had previously taught guitar lessons. He asked Gerry Silvia for lessons and at first Silvia was reluctant because he had given up teaching, but David stayed after him. Mr. Silvia eventually agreed, but not until he made David promise that he would be very serious about practicing. Gerry started teaching out of the Aaron Shearer Classical Guitar Technique books. David describes them as being “more modern, not just old classical pieces.”
David practiced hard and his group took second place in the talent show. Rawlings recalls that he really liked being on stage and playing for people. He started getting together with friends and learning tunes by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Bob Dylan. He remembers that one of the kids, who was considered a good player because he could play Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done” told him that he “had to practice 20 minutes a day.” David remembers thinking, “If 20 minutes a day is good, what about 8 hours a day?”
After taking lessons from Gerry Silvia for about a year and a half, Gerry told him, “You’ve learned to play about as good as I can now,” and he sent David out on his own. David continued to explore music by joining bands. He saw a want ad in the paper for a punk band seeking a guitarist. In addition to listening to 60’s and 70’s folk and folk rock, David was also listening to alt-rock bands like The Smiths and The Pixies and had saved up enough money from his paper route to buy a Fender Squire Stratocaster. He auditioned for the punk band gig and got the job.
In addition to the job in the punk band, David also got a job as the lead guitar player in a country band, Silver Steel. The band played four sets three or four nights a week at clubs. David had been interested in country music, having been introduced to it through Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline record, but he had never really explored it on his guitar. When he auditioned for the band, the bandleader, Craig Webb, told him, “You are a good guitar player, but you don’t know country.” He gave David a tape with a few country tunes and said, “Figure out these guitar parts and come back.” David did his homework and Craig was impressed. He gave David some more tapes and said, “Learn these other forty songs and you are hired.” Again, David did his homework and got the job.
Playing in these bands gave David a lot of live music performance experience. He said, “Something every musician should do if they get the opportunity is play in a band that does four sets a night several nights a week. By the third set on the second night you get to a place that you can’t get to without having that much live stage experience.” That experience didn’t last too long though because after he graduated from high school, David received a scholarship to the University of Richmond and moved to Virginia to study English.
While in Richmond, David played the classical guitar and joined the school’s jazz band. Although he was an English major, he was so focused on music that he completed every music class that the school offered in the first two semesters. Hungry for a more intensive music program David left Richmond after one year and entered the Berklee College of Music in Boston. While in Boston he concentrated all of his classes during a few days of the week and played in bands on the non-class days. He was in alt rock bands, country bands, and also joined school ensembles. He became the “go to” guy for students who needed a good lead guitar player.
Before attending Berklee, David had not had much exposure to old-time music or bluegrass. The huge variety of country music songs that he played in Craig Webb’s band did lead him to search out the traditional country music that he eventually captivated his interest—the Louvin Brothers, Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Buck Owns, and Hank Williams, Sr., to name a few—but he still had not explored older American music styles. His first exposure to bluegrass came through a Berklee classmate from North Carolina who wanted David to join him for a show on International Music Night. The theme of the show called for performers to go up on stage and play music from their home country. David’s friend wanted to play music from his home state. The home state being North Carolina, the music he selected was bluegrass.
David’s friend approached him on a Monday. The show was on Thursday of that same week. He gave David a tape of Tony Rice and Norman Blake and asked if he could learn three tunes—“Salt Creek,” “Monroe’s Hornpipe,” and “Blackberry Blossom.” David borrowed a flattop guitar. His only exposure to this style of playing in the past had been on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline recording, featuring Norman Blake on the guitar. David listened closely to the Rice & Blake recording, practiced hard, and was able to perform the tunes.
The experience learning the flatpicking tunes for the International Music Night show led David to seek out a group of people at Berklee who liked to play old-time and bluegrass music. Through that group he met former Flatpicking Guitar Magazine columnist John McGann and took a few lessons from John. David said, “John told me that I needed to use a heavier pick and he taught me how to play with the back edge of the pick. I still do that.” Another member of that group was Gillian Welch. Gillian introduced David to the Stanley Brothers and he started exploring other traditional American roots music that was available to him on vinyl recordings at Berklee. He discovered the Lilly Brothers, Son House, Uncle Dave Macon, the Monroe Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, and many others.
David said, “When you are young, you are like a sponge. All this was happening at the same time for me. I went from punk gigs to country gigs, from folk rock, to traditional American music, all at the same time. It was all good for me.” David entered Berklee primarily as an electric guitar player, but by the time he left in 1992 he had started playing more acoustic. Although Rawlings attended Berklee for three years, he decided to leave and head for Nashville before he graduated. In 1992 he packed up his Stratocaster, his Telecaster, and a Taylor 810 and made the move south.
When David first hit Nashville, he was hanging out with other friends from Berklee who had also made the move. Gillian Welch had made the move about a month before David because he was playing lead guitar in Boston with the band John Hicks and Revolution and had to wait for a replacement. Once in Nashville, David again became the guy singer/songwriters would turn to when they needed a guitar player. One of those singer/songwriters was his friend from Berklee, Gillian Welch.
At first David was backing up Gillian when she went out to perform at open mic nights. As time progressed they started developing their sound and putting together an act. They felt like their voices sounded good together and they discovered that they were most comfortable performing as a duo. David enjoyed flatpicking in the duo setting where the guitar was not overpowered by a banjo or fiddle. The logistics of traveling and performing as a duo, versus a full band, were also easier.
During their early days in Nashville, Gillian and David would perform a few of the original songs that Gillian had brought with her from Berklee, along with traditional numbers like “Long Black Veil,” “Been All Around This World,” and “Pig in a Pen.” They were huge fans of the old brother duet sound and their version of “Long Black Veil” was based on a Lily Brothers arrangement. David remembers that at one show, where they performed in a shopping mall, he noticed that an older woman holding shopping bags had stopped to sing along with them as they sung “Long Black Veil.” After their performance was over the woman came up and introduced herself as Mary John Wilkins, the writer of “Long Black Veil” (Mary John Wilkins co-wrote the song with Danny Dill). She said that she liked their performance.
David describes another occasion early in their career together when he and Gillian joined a group of old-time musicians playing in a big house in North Carolina. That night the duo performed a few Blue Sky Boys (Earl and Bill Bolick) numbers. Later that evening they discovered that several of the Bolick brothers’ relatives were in attendance when one of them commented that he “loved the way they performed his uncle’s songs.” This kind of feedback validated the authenticity of what David and Gillian were doing and gave them confidence to continue.
Regarding his guitar style, David feels like the style that he plays when he is performing with Gillian developed as a result of integrating the sound of his guitar with Gillian’s guitar and voice. He said that he likes to think of the music as coming from a single instrument, not two guitars. He said, “Gillian plays great bass lines and there is a real delicacy to how many strings she hits on a strum. There is a lot of nuance in her playing. I try to arrange what I play around what she is playing so that it paints a panoramic picture and sounds like a single instrument. We do everything from making a lot of sound and having a lot of volume, playing big full chords, all the way down to not playing at all. We explore the full panoramic range.”
David says that he has always been interested in how notes sound ringing against other notes. One of the reasons he did not stay with the saxophone as a kid was that it was a single note instrument. He said, “I love trying to get the feeling like Bob Dylan playing the harmonica. It sounds a little sloppy, but it is not. I like hearing the sound of one chord on top of another and I like to hear some dissonance. I like that sound because there is freedom and an ‘on the edge’ feeling.”
Part of David’s sound and style is his willingness to explore dissonance. He said that he likes to use 9ths and 11ths, especially on top of minor chords. In an video interview with Scott Nygaard, of Acoustic Guitar Magazine, David discusses some of his ideas about playing notes on top of chords and comments on instances where he might chose to play a 9th or 11th on top of the chord in order to “expand the sound outward” and “create space and atmosphere” instead of playing a 3rd, which would “hold it in.” He even relates a funny story about an Internet comment that he read where his use of dissonance in a song caused the listener to think that his guitar was out of tune.
David says that what he plays today when he is performing with Gillian doesn’t exist without her guitar and voice as a part of the equation. He stated that he has never felt as natural or comfortable playing the guitar as a solo act because he likes to play against other instruments. He said, “I like to have other notes to react to and reflect upon. Instead of a guitar player, I feel more like an arranger who plays the guitar.”
Although David can point to players like Norman Blake, Tony Rice, Doc Watson, and Clarence White as guitar players that he has listened to over the years, he said that he has never felt comfortable trying to copy what other players do on the guitar. He said, “I can’t play other people’s licks and make them sound good at all.” David’s approach to learning the guitar has always been based around performance and thinking about the overall sound of the ensemble. He has developed his style of playing by working hard, performing a lot, and taking chances on stage. He said, “Going for it is part of the process. I think that I would be far less accomplished if everything that I played had been written out.”
Many guitar players shy away from “going for it” because they are afraid of making mistakes. Rawlings said, “In any situation, if something funny happened, if I made a mistake, my inclination was to laugh about it. I never felt ashamed; I thought that it was funny. I didn’t mind going for something and having it not work out. The audience is there to have a good time. What does it matter if you go for something and you are off? It doesn’t stop people from having a good time.”
When asked about how much of his guitar playing is improvised, David said that what he plays on stage is about half improvised and half arranged. He said, “If I have stuff that I know works on a song, I will play it the same.” As an example, he said that when he first performed “I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll” at the initial Down From The Mountain concert he had only the barest idea of what to play during the short solo, but he knew he wanted it to sound exciting. What he improvised worked out so well, that he decided that he had to learn it and play it that way every time. He said, “If something is functioning, I will use it. But, I’m always open to other inclinations. If you are in the middle of the solo and inspiration flags, it is nice to have something to come back to so you are not left out on a limb.”
Two elements that are apparent in David’s guitar style are the use of crosspicking and heavy downstrokes. When asked about these techniques, David said that he like using the crosspicking roll because it gives the music motion. He said, “Crosspicking is the default of what I do.” Regarding the heavy downstroke phrases, David said, “I was obsessed with Bill Monroe’s mandolin style. I wanted to figure out how he got that drive. That comes from Bill and from wanting to have something that sounds exciting and purpose driven.”
During my interview with Dave, whenever he talked about music, he would refer to creating a “sound.” He talked of not enjoying playing the saxophone in grade school because it was a single note instrument and he more enjoyed the sound of notes against each other. He talked of the sound he discovered when stretching out and plucking rubber bands when he was very young. He never talked about copying licks or techniques, or playing certain notes or phrases to create solos. He said that his style of guitar playing when performing with Gillian was a response to the sound of Gillian’s guitar and voice. The discussion of guitar playing had much more to do about creating a sound than learning technique.
Over the past 18 years I’ve interviewed hundreds of guitar players and David is the first one who, when talking about music, focused more on sounds than techniques, licks, songs, or influences from other players. Thinking of himself as an arranger instead of a guitar player and thinking about the two guitars in the duo as one instrument “painting a panoramic picture” with sound are interesting perspectives.
Starting with a sound in your head and then working backwards to find that sound on your instrument is kind of like reverse engineering. I first became aware of this idea when I was watching Victor Wooten’s Groove Workshop DVD. Victor has been highly creative and inventive on the bass guitar and I had always wondered how he came up with all of the techniques that he invented. In his DVD he reveals that it all started with a sound. He heard a sound and wanted to reproduce that sound on his instrument. The sound could have come from another bass player, or another musical instrument, or a sound in nature, or something out on the street. He took his instrument in hand and then developed a technique that allowed him to recreate that sound.
During my interview with David, he told a story about being at Steve Winwood’s home and Winwood playing some arrangements for him of songs that he had learned as a kid. Winwood had listened to some old blues recordings where the guitar player was playing in an
open tuning with a slide. Winwood had worked out some “crazy arrangements” that imitated what he had heard, but he did it in standard tuning with no slide. He was not copying exact licks or techniques, but he was copying sounds. David said, “He made it work.”
Over the past decade I have often been asked about David Rawlings guitar playing. People ask me, “What is he doing?” I could talk about it to some degree because I could recognize certain techniques that he was using. After interviewing David I would now answer that question differently because I don’t think that he has approached learning the guitar by learning techniques and then stringing techniques together to fit the framework of a given song. I think that he starts with the overall sound “picture” and then paints that picture. In other words, I’m not sure that you could copy David’s technique and sound exactly like David because you’d be missing a part of the picture, which is the sound of the other instruments and voices that make up that picture.
A part of the sonic pallet that David creates in his shows with Gillian Welch is his 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop guitar. He was playing a Taylor up until the time he and Gillian recorded their first CD. He said that he had been thinking about changing to an archtop when he found this guitar, in the winter of 1995, covered with saw dust under a work bench at a friend’s home. David picked up the guitar, which didn’t have strings or a bridge, and knocked his knuckles on the guitar’s back. He liked the knock tone of the guitar and asked his friend if he was willing to sell it.
David’s friend was not willing to sell the guitar, but was willing to offer David a trade. He said, “If you can get me a Band Master Reverb amplifier head, I’ ll trade you.” David said, “I’d never even seen a Band Master Reverb head. I’d never even heard of one. I discovered that it was an amp that Fender made in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. I went to Boston the next day, to Allston Music, and there amongst the amps was a silver Band Master Reverb head!” David talked the store owner down from the price that was marked on the amp head so that he could cover the cost with the money that he had on him at the time. He then returned to his friend’s home with the amp.
When David showed up at his friend’s home with the amp, the day after the trade had been offered, his friend was shocked. David said, “He never thought I’d find this amp because he had been looking for one forever.” The trade was made and David had his Epiphone archtop.
David took the guitar back to Nashville and gave it to a repairman to have a bridge built, since the guitar was missing the bridge, and get the guitar set up and in good playing condition. Months later he received the guitar back just before he and Gillian were scheduled to go into the studio in Los Angeles, with producer T-Bone Burnett, to record Gillian’s debut album, Revival. Almost as an afterthought, since they had an extra shipping box, David decided to go ahead and ship the archtop to Los Angeles along with the other instruments that they were shipping to use in the studio.
David said, “As soon as we were in the studio with T-Bone and I heard this guitar on the mic, I said, ‘This is it!’ I was so stoked at the way the guitar was sounding.” The Epiphone guitar continues to be a part of the Gillian Welch and David Rawlings sound. Even though he recently acquired a 1939 Martin D-18 that he bought from Norman Blake, he said that he said that he would continue to play the Epiphone with Gillian.
In addition to his guitar playing, songwriting, and singing, David also is a talented producer. After T-Bone Burnett produced Gillian’s first two recordings (Revival and Hell Among the Yearlings),
David stepped in to produce Gillian’s third, fourth, and fifth albums—Time (The Revelator), Soul Journey, The Harrow & The Harvest. He also produced Old Crow Medicine Show’s commercial debut O.C.M.S. and their follow-up recording Big Iron World. Additionally, David produced Robyn Hitchcock’s CD Spooked in 2004.
In addition to recording and performing as a duo with Gillian, since 2006 David has also fronted his own band, called the Dave Rawlings Machine. The group recorded a CD in 2009, titled A Friend of A Friend and they continue to tour periodically. They recently finished a southeast tour with John Paul Jones, of Led Zeppelin fame, on mandolin, Paul Kowert, of the Punch Brothers, and Willie Watson, formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show. When performing in the duo, the main focus of the act is Gillian’s lead singing and songwriting. Gillian is also a member of David Rawlings Machine, but in that group she is in more of
a supporting role and David steps out front. David’s guitar style can be edgy, hard driving, and up-in-your-face. A great example of a solo that fans love is on the Gillian Welch and David Rawlings tune “Caleb Meyer.” So that our readers can learn how David employs those heavy Bill Monroe style downstrokes, we’ve transcribed two solos from a live performance of “Caleb Meyer.” We’ ve included the segment of the song that includes these two solos on the audio CD that accompanies this issue. But if you really want to capture what David is doing on this tune, you can also watch him play what we have transcribed on youtube. You can find the clip at this URL: http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=Xwh7lYGaeN4 (or search on “Half an hour GILLIAN WELCH and DAVE RAWLINGS live @ Paradiso 2012”). The first solo starts at about 1:17
and the second solo starts at 2:02.
Nearly ten years ago I was traveling across country and I made a stop in Salt Lake City to visit a great music store called Intermountain Guitar and Banjo. When I walked in the store there were only two other people there besides one of the store’s owners. The two people, who were sitting in chairs and surrounded by vintage instruments that the owner was pulling out of the back room, were Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I introduced myself and Gillian said, “You should feature David in your magazine.” I agreed right then and there and I’m very happy that we were finally able to get it done. I think that David Rawlings guitar playing is something that all flatpickers should take time to examine and study. If you do, I think that you will find it to be well worth the effort.

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