The great American folk music tradition is a storied one, and those stories are usually disagreed upon, bastardized, stretched, exaggerated, chopped up, and told with a wink of an eye. With a hefty spoonful of salt, we can all agree that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for his supernatural guitar chops at a crossroads around Dockery, Mississippi. Or maybe it was Beauregard. Or Clarksdale, at the intersection of Route 61 and US 49. Folk legends and songs are fickle, living, and elastic: They're passed down through generations but told in the way that needs telling at the time it needs to be said. It's a tradition that's rife with smirks and thievery and hero's journeys and often timeless lessons. That's why these things last so long, regardless of transformation. David Rawlings is not only a student of folk music but also a master—a necessary split when working in the vein of such an artform. His latest record, Poor David's Almanack—the title itself a nod to collected wisdom—is technically his third, but he's also the longtime musical partner of Gillian Welch, and he's played and written with everyone from Ryan Adams to Ani DiFranco. And with typically folky humor, Poor David's Almanack almost had a different name.
"Weirdly, one of the first titles that popped into our heads in a jokey sort of way was like, 'Man, I kinda wanna call it Money Is The Meat In The Coconut and Nine Other Popular Sayings,' Rawlings laughs, speaking over the phone from his home in East Nashville. "Which was just a joke to me because of course 'money is the meat in the coconut' is not a popular saying. But it feels like it might be!"
That's the thing: few people, specifically those who might cock an eye and whip out their phone to check, would know otherwise. And the actual tune, thanks to Rawlings's deft and timeless songwriting hand, would back it up. It sounds like it could've been written two centuries ago or yesterday, employing tried-and-true melodies along with well-worn, loose and natural instrumentation, handclap percussion, and his own down-home delivery. With more than two decades of contributions to the craft, Rawlings is deeply embedded in the folk music bloodstream. His work alongside Welch is some of the genre's most stunning, and he's also contributed his playing to modern American myths—albeit by way of Greek ones, but such is the nature of storytelling—such as the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? Still, it's Poor David's Almanack, he says, that he approached with that tradition, and becoming part of it, in mind. People aren't really playing old-timey songs anymore, and he didn't know where he was gonna find what he was looking for, so he decided to write it himself. "Midnight Train" for example, with its simple acoustic strum, room for improvisation, and familiar melody, is a Rawlings original, but sounds just like an old standard. Becoming a part of that tradition creates a deep connection.
"There's amazing gratification in some way," Rawlings says. "I remember being at a folk festival and walking by a campfire and people are playing and all of a sudden they start playing a song we wrote. And you hear a circle of 20 people pickin' along or singing something you thought up or that you had some part in creating."
Rawlings goes on to explain that he and Welch were talking to Paul Simon, and Welch was explaining that she consistently, if subconsciously, starts to play Simon's "Duncan" when she's kind of stuck writing a song, and something always seems to spring from it. Simon replied that he's probably written five or six tunes the same way by starting things off with Junior Parker's "Mystery Train."
"When you do something like that, you feel that for whatever reason, you're speaking for a larger group of people who all wanted to sing that thing or say the same thing," Rawlings says. "You feel as though you've done something worthwhile. To say that folk music is different from whatever we wanna call pop music—it's all folk music in the end. The same way the hit from one summer sounds just like the hit from the next summer which is slightly altered, and so on and so forth. It's the way of the world. I guess in folk music it's a little more accepted or understood or thought about."
It's a game of thieves, for sure. An apt quote to really get at the heart of the thing is one that, not-so-coincidentally, has been attributed itself to multiple different people: "Good artists copy; great artists steal." "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Baa Baa Black Sheep" have the exact same melody. Bob Dylan knew that thievery could get him where he wanted to go when he ripped off Woody Guthrie. And there's a reason all those songs and artists have endured. While he prefaced the statement by saying he doesn't, "want this to come off the wrong way," Rawlings was looking to put together the kind of record that people would be happy listening to while they work on their car in the garage or whistle along to washing the dishes. That might make it sound dispensable, but that's the exact way music embeds itself inside you. That's why you know all the lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land" or the Spice Girls' "Wannabe."
"I don't have any doubt in my mind about the durability of folk music, and the durability of simple but clever melodies—these kinda things that have one little turn in them that mean they'll never leave your head," Rawlings says. "These songs that you hear when you're four and you know by heart by the time you've heard 'em three times. They just get in there."
"I don't have any doubt that stuff can make it through the next 200 years, that there's value in it," he adds.
Poor David's Almanack is packed with those simple but clever melodies—you can hear them in the tale of "Lindsey Button," "a pretty young girl come down the valley," or the simple but effective, fiddle-touched love tune "Come On Over My House." But the record doesn't rely on simplicity, though simplicity is always there in the compositions. "Yup" illustrates, with an appearance by the devil himself and a bit of demon-demolishing, how women are tougher than men. The dark and dusty road narratives of the driving "Cumberland Gap" sound passed down for generations, and the least old-sounding song on the album, "Airplane," is a wistful and tragic meditation, hoping for something that just ain't coming.
It's not an easy thing, to create something that sounds timeless. And in less capable hands, this material might've lost its magic. Rawlings wrote half of the songs on Poor David's Almanack completely by himself, a first for him on one of his record's, which usually feature Welch's co-writing in a large role. It almost feels strange to think of Rawlings and Welch as separate at this point. Their partnership informs each of their impulses to a telepathic degree. Shortly after the two moved to Nashville, around the winter of '92, they were sitting in Rawlings's kitchen and duetted on old Stanley Brothers songs and "Long Black Veil." "I'll never forget it," Welch says, recalling their instant connection. "We both stopped afterwards."
Rawlings points out that—like his friends the Coen brothers, who he's been able to speak to about their creative relationship and watch work—when he and Welch agree on something, that's that. There's no question it's the right decision. But Welch has an insightful take on why Rawlings might be able to create such timeless pieces of music.
"I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who lets the peculiarities and the necessities of technique and the instrument get in his way less," Welch says. "Dave's all about pure musical thought. I feel like when you hear him play, you're hearing pure musical response. In a way—this is gonna sound funny, because he's such an extraordinary guitar player—but in a way, the guitar is incidental. Because if you put Dave on a Hammond B3, he sounds exactly the same. It's all about what he wants to hear musically—the time he wants to hear, the tension he wants to hear, the notes he wants to hear. It's not really about guitar."
"He certainly never gets hung up on technique," she laughs. "It's just a wonderful thing to hear, and in our way I'd say we're both really ecstatics at heart. We're always looking for that ecstatic, transcendent moment, and neither of us really cares how you get there."
While a lot of Rawlings's music has that timeless feel, it also often feels of a time, which sprouts from the traditional sounding melodies and snippets of bygone words and phrases that fill out his tunes. You never hear people refer to 'pallets' ("a straw-filled tick or mattress, according to Merriam-Webster) anymore. Most of us would have to look up, too, what a flintlock is ("a lock for a gun or pistol having a flint in the hammer for striking a spark to ignite the charge"). Both of those words, along with more than one appearance by Satan, and a re-telling of God creating woman, show up in the lyrics on Poor David's Almanack.
Last year, the movie Arrival, which is, to be reductive, about aliens and language, brought the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to a large audience. It's the linguistic theory that someone's language determines their conception of the world. With the eras of language and melody that Rawlings often works in, I was curious if he thought his writing and reading might influence the way he decides to live his life. He doesn't really like to fly, opting instead for the slower pace of a car, providing him the ability to stop and look around when needed, which he says keeps him more attached to the creative process. Poor David's Almanack was recorded on analog tape, although he chalks that up to nothing having come up yet that works better for him. But he is discriminating about the art he exposes himself to, and doesn't just "read any old book," for example. He knows the things he reads will change the way he thinks and feels, and alter the kind of words that come out of his mouth. Folk music, he thinks, endures because people 200 years ago aren't too different, at their core, from people in 2017.
"Looking at folk music, maybe it does help me look at the world through a lens where I see the things or I find myself seeing the things in people that haven't changed, more than being distracted by the way some new app is gonna change the world," Rawlings says. "Sure, there are plenty of things that are gonna change the process of the world, or things that human beings do, but the reason human beings might be attracted to that app or that process is because of the way they are and the way they've always been."
We all still get hung up on love, worry needlessly about our place in the universe, wonder where it is we came from. We try to explain and express ourselves and our circumstances through art. We're all basically fumbling through our limited time in the same way and with the same concerns people did before electricity or the steam engine. More or less, folk music's power comes from the fact we haven't really changed that much.
"Or at all!" Rawlings offers. "I guess folk music maybe keeps reminding you of that, when you look at some story that's really old and go, "Yeah, maybe the language is a bit different but goodness, it's the same story.' It's the same story you heard and could hear streaming a brand new song. It's just updated in a way, told in a different vernacular."
That shared language makes us all feel a way when we hear a certain chord, or a familiar lyric, or catchy melody. And folk songs are often scrapped together from the stolen parts of things that came before. That's why "money is the meat in the coconut" sounds like the kind of popular saying that would've fallen out of the 19th century. And it's why folk music continues to connect with people.
"You take pieces of things that give you the feeling you need."
Matt Williams is a Canadian writer and photographer. Follow him on Twitter.
See David Rawlings on Tour
November 24 /// Hartford, CT /// Infinity Hall
November 25 /// Providence, RI /// Columbus Theatre
November 27 /// Portland, ME /// State Theatre
November 28 /// Northampton, MA /// Academy of Music Theatre
November 29 /// Boston, MA /// Wilbur Theatre
December 01 /// Burlington, VT /// Higher Ground Ballroom
December 02 /// Albany, NY /// Hart Theatre at The Egg
December 03 /// Ithaca, NY /// State Theatre
December 05 /// New York, NY /// Brooklyn Steel
December 06 /// Washington DC /// Lincoln Theatre
December 07 /// Philadelphia, PA /// Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
December 08 /// Richmond, VA /// The National
December 09 /// Charlottesville, VA /// Jefferson Theater
January 17 /// Chattanooga, TN /// Tivoli Theater
January 18 /// Athens, GA /// Georgia Theatre
January 19 /// Charlotte, NC /// Neighborhood Theatre
January 20-21/// Saxapahaw, NC /// Haw River Ballroom
January 23 /// Nashville, TN /// Ryman Auditorium
January 24 /// Birmingham, AL /// The Lyric Theatre
January 25 /// Atlanta, GA /// Variety Playhouse
January 26 /// Asheville, NC /// Orange Peel
January 27 /// Knoxville, TN /// Bijou Theatre
February 27 /// Santa Cruz, CA /// Rio Theatre
February 28 /// Santa Rosa, CA /// Luther Burbank Center for the Arts
March 01 /// San Francisco, CA /// The Fillmore
March 02 /// Santa Barbara, CA /// Lobero Theatre
March 03 /// Los Angeles, CA /// The Theatre at Ace Hotel
March 05 /// Arcata, CA /// John Van Duzer Theatre
March 07 /// Grants Pass, OR /// Rogue Theater
March 08 /// Eugene, OR /// McDonald Theatre
March 09 /// Portland, OR /// Roseland Theater
March 10 /// Seattle, WA /// Moore Theatre