In the narrative folktale that has become modern Americana music, there are no figures more central to the story than Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. Between their seven collaborations, the pair has constructed a compelling folk dynamic some might peg uniquely their own, though it is surely indebted to the partnership of Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons.
It is through this lens that Nashville Obsolete, the second album from the iteration of the duo known as Dave Rawlings Machine, should be viewed. Not as a love letter to the cosmic Nashville country ushered in by Parsons (Nashville Obsolete is expectedly more earthy and folk-driven), but to that particular template of success. And with it, some amount of power that Harris, with Parsons, helped achieve for their successors, before the latter abruptly vacated the role.
Because it’s not as if Welch and Rawlings were the only ones to think of wearing matching Nudie suits (in which they were both garbed, accepting a shared Lifetime Achievement Award at the recent Americana Music Association Awards), or to be drawn toward a love of Music City (neither Harris, Parsons, Rawlings, nor Welch are Nashville-born). It’s that Harris and Parsons tapped into a music mode so essential, and so fleeting, it’s possible to see those unfulfilled opportunities finally realized with Welch and Rawlings.
If Parsons was the apparent driving force of his partnership, it’s equal footing with Welch and Rawlings, and each is accountable for the weaknesses on this album. The musicality, Welch’s vocals, and Rawlings’s guitar, are, as always, exceptional. Welch, like Harris, is an unmatched accompanist in any sphere. Rawlings’s guitar, similarly, is equally expansive, fluid, and loose. Yet even while so many of the parts fit together, something’s missing.
The pacing of the album’s seven songs is uneven, and the subject matter is as varied as the wildly fluctuating track lengths (from 3:38 to 10:56). On average, Welch and Rawlings’s releases are generally more thematic. There was the sparse and introspective thread that tied together releases like Soul Journey and Time (The Revelator), as well as the more widely lugubrious The Harrow and the Harvest. Here, the album zig-zags over a field of notions, opening with the Neil Young ringer “The Weekend,” then moving to a lost-woman lament “Short Haired Woman Blues,” to the repetitive refrain in the Shel Silverstein-esque song, “Candy,” to an exploration of the canned expression lifted from the last song, “(Pilgrim) You Can’t Go Home,” that closing track to the most uneasy effect. In the past, it felt natural to settle in and get comfy in a Welch/Rawlings recording, but Nashville Obsolete has the feeling of a lumpy armchair.
In regard to the duo’s mythology, what best ties this album together is its visual cues, like the dress Welch wears on both this album cover and that of Harvest, and the first interior cover photo of Rawlings, where he looks a lot like Parsons in a well-circulated press shot. This could as easily be coincidence as it could indicate Welch and Rawlings are beginning to perceive themselves as an aesthetic brand. If it’s the latter, the duo should be keen to notice the dangers inherent in relying too heavily on the packaging of the thing, rather than the thing itself. Or in their very particular (and quite rare) case, what it means to be heirs to a legacy worth far more than rhinestones.