‘An Old Folio of Folk Songs’: David Rawlings on His New ‘Almanack’
David Rawlings’ new album Poor David’s Almanack delivers canny wisdom about health, wealth, love, and home drawn from a deep well of folk and blues music. I chatted with him recently about his album and his music, and how a book by a certain American statesman inspired the album’s title.
So, the burning question: is that a saw on “Yup”?
Yes (laughs); it’s actually an electric saw. Austin Hoke came in and played saw on the tune.
What’s the story behind the record?
We made the record over a short period of time. I guess the beginnings of the record I’d trace back to the summer of 2016, probably July. I had a break in touring behind Nashville Obsolete, and I had this burst of songs begin to happen. I got 6 or 7 things started over the course of a week or two; a few things might have even gotten finished (chuckles).
How did you select the songs for the album?
The songs themselves were very interesting, and I was struck by how different the songs were from the ones I was playing from Nashville Obsolete. Maybe it was a musical reaction to playing Nashville Obsolete songs every night. What had been happening in shows is my inclination to put in a song that Woody Guthrie would have played. I saw a similarity between those songs, and I was writing more in that vein. So, I went ahead and included those songs in the shows. The structure of these songs is fairly simple—very much in the folk-blues idiom. Everybody really liked playing them. The band asked if we were gonna try to record these songs. So, I thought, let’s get these things down while the iron is hot.
How did you come up with the album title?
Well, I always thought about the way that Ben Franklin gathered those pithy sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanack. The songs themselves felt like an old folio of folk songs; I thought of the songs themselves addressing the whole world through a particular lens. The songs are psychedelic folksy music. Some of the songs’ titles — “Money is the Meat in the Coconut” — sound like some of those folksy sayings, and “almanack” just felt like the right word.
I hear lots of different songs in “Midnight Train”; tell me how you write that song.
The first line is found folk. The shape of the melody is clearly a blues form. As far as the structure of the song goes, I’ve always been interested in Dylan’s “Lonesome Hobo” and wanted to incorporate it musically into a song I was writing. As different verses would come to mind, some of them would start to stick. The song tells a story in a classic blues way. Once we had it close, we started playing it. The first time was played it at a show, we opened the show with it. There’s a great mysticism in lines in the song that illustrate the conflict between progress and nature.
What about “Guitar Man”?
Started this one with a melody and a chord system that I found hypnotic. I thought how few words would need to be in the chorus and verses. I was searching for a picture you’d be able to draw with that simplicity. I love the way that that suspended chord feels over the words. The song has a sweet Southern feel to it. The song reminds me of the truth and romance of musicians talking about each other in their own terms.
When did you start playing?
I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 16. I wanted to perform Neil Young songs in talent shows (chuckles). I took to guitar quickly, and I got through the first guitar book in a day or two. I think I picked it up so quickly because I’d laid a lot of groundwork playing video games, so my eye-hand coordination was really good. Probably with a year I was out playing songs. One of the first songs I had to play was “Hot Rod Lincoln.” I wrote a little bit with friends in bands, but didn’t really get started writing until Gillian and I started working together. Almost immediately we started writing songs; she’d have a song started, and we’ve work on it together.
Who are some of the artists who’ve influenced you?
I’m not interested in singling out individuals or bands. What’s more important to me is the music. In my life as a musician you can be affected so deeply by a sigh, a line, a melody, or a simple guitar lick on a record. What you hear influences you emotionally and that enlarges the dimension of the song you’re writing or the way you’re playing. I’m drawn to the feeling inspired by Dylan’s harmonica solos, their energy and what they do to the record itself. I’m interested in improvisation. When you improvise you start with a feeling and develop thoughts and melodies not unlike what you do with colors. I want to be able to see a song a certain way; as soon as we start playing, I see a landscape. Neil Young is a great improviser on guitar. Chet Baker played at a lot of slower tempos; what he did was to work through melodies. Chuck Berry is one of the greatest writers of that era. Willie Nelson is the greatest improviser on guitar; his playing stands head and shoulders above others.