David Rawlings: Poor David’s Almanack review – his most Welch-like release by far

The guitar great delves deep into rural America on his third solo outing

Rankings are for cloth-eared philistines, and listicles are an insult to the craft of musicians. It is, however, timely to note that Time (The Revelator), the great 2001 album by folk stylist Gillian Welch, was ranked 39th in US National Public Radio’s recent list of the 150 greatest albums made by women. Yee, and indeed, haw.

Welch is, of course, the workmate of superlative guitarist Dave Rawlings; they run a label and a vinyl cutting lathe together. He plays on her excellent records and she on his – a relationship that was initially kept more hush-hush, the better to foreground Welch in the gendered snakepit that is creative labour. This third Rawlings LP (two are credited to Dave Rawlings Machine) is their eighth joint outing. The maths and attribution matter – not least because Welch loyalists crave the follow-up to her sensational, Grammy-nominated 2011 album The Harrow & the Harvest, a hungry gap now filled by two Rawlings sets. While you can still hear distant fingers drumming, it would be disrespectful to complain beyond this paragraph – especially since Rawlings is an enlightened soul, happily playing second fiddle to Welch for two decades, and because Poor David’s Almanack is by far the most Welch-like of Rawlings’s releases.

Both of his previous, excellent efforts – A Friend of a Friend (2009) and Nashville Obsolete (2015) – were, at heart, singer-songwriter records, redolent of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Almanack skews hard towards the gothic folk and reworked traditionals of Welch’s output, from the woodcut cover art (by Welch) to the presence of Brittany Haas’s fiddle and jaunty bagatelles like Money Is the Meat in the Coconut. Here Welch is, singing harmony on the third line of the first song, Midnight Train. The song’s antecedent is an African American roots version – wet with tears but ending on a high note.

By song three we’re in a minor key, deep in the Appalachians where Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia meet, and Rawlings and Welch have joined voices. Collected by John Lomax, Cumberland Gap boasts previous treatments by Woody Guthrie and Lonnie Donegan. Rawlings’s is a knockout, full of eloquent instrumentation, killer harmonies and civil war-era fear and longing.

It is, ultimately, unfair to parse a Rawlings album looking for traces of Welch. It’s wisest to thrill to an Americana record you can howl along to in the car until your heart feels replenished, to guitar work that stands among the finest. A pair of songs themed around femininity are particularly entertaining: on the needly Yup, the devil takes a scold to hell. She proves such a handful he brings her back. On Good God a Woman, the act of creation is incomplete until “the boss-man” whittles a rib.

Often, Rawlings and Welch songs are love songs to music itself – not least Guitar Man. It’s not the Bread song, but a southern country-rock offering that owes something to Neil Young, and it’s tempting to read it as an ironic self-portrait. “Go, tell your friends/ Here comes the guitar man,” sing Rawlings and Welch, before one of his unostentatiously curlicue-ing solos fades out cruelly early.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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