Although his partnership with longtime collaborator Gillian Welch has spawned six albums in 20 years, Dave Rawlings’ name has made the cover of only one of them up until now. The sole time he found himself at the helm of a band, Dave Rawlings Machine, was less a solo venture than a communal ensemble. Likewise, his biggest foray into the musical mainstream was his participation in the best-selling soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou, a film with which was made up of mostly obscure traditional songs from an era gone by.
Then again, Rawlings’ career has always seemed somewhat out of step with the times. When he and Welch moved to Nashville in the early ‘90s after meeting at an audition for a country band at Berklee College of Music in Boston — which each happened to be attending at the time — male/female folk duets were decidedly out of sync with the changes taking place in Music City and the music industry overall.
Nevertheless, beginning with 1996‘s Revival, the pair released four more albums bearing Welch’s name — Hell Among the Yearlings (1998), Time (The Revelator) (2001), Soul Journey (2003) and The Harrow & The Harvest (2011). Each of those efforts found the duo sticking to basic precepts, that is, a penchant for archival folk that’s timeless in its transition and paid little heed for modern amenities.
In 2009, Rawlings opted to finally put his own name on the marquee and release his first and, up until now, only album under the banner of the Dave Rawlings Machine. It found Rawlings expanding the arrangements and adding other musicians to the mix. Now, six years after that debut, Rawlings is back with a new offering from the Machine, a seven song mini-album titled Nashville Obsolete that hews to the same trad/country template as the first, but with an ample dose of pure melancholia tossed in for good measure. The entry that kicks things off, the otherwise optimistically entitled “The Weekend,” foregoes the usual anticipation promised by a couple of days off in order to give voice to Rawlings’ pessimistic point of view. “I’m going down the road feeling bad,” he moans, casting off on a downtrodden journey that generally lasts the course of the entire album. “Short Haired Woman Blues” is similarly somber, as is the half-spoken Dylanesque narrative “The Trip,” the weary track that follows and the similar-sounding “Bodysnatchers,” the offering that follows that. Imagine Townes Van Zandt doing a ragged reprise of “Wild Horses,” and you get some idea of the tone and tempo that Rawlings opts for here.
Granted, sadness such as this doesn’t bode well for an entertaining encounter, but Rawlings makes an ernest attempt to convey the full weight of his emotional baggage, and the sometimes solitary arrangements underscore those sentiments with grace and agility. Desperation and desire are fully fleshed out with acoustic trappings and archival tones. That antebellum feel comes full throttle on the three tracks that round the collection, “The Last Pharaoh,” “Candy” and “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home),” songs that suggest Rawlings’ participation in the musical mix that made up O Brother Where Art Thou continues to hold sway over his present efforts. It may be Nashville Obsolete in the present tense, but in truth, sublime sentiment never fades from fashion.