If an artist carves a beautiful sculpture out of a tree in the forest and no one sees the artist do it, is he or she still an artist? The obvious answer is, or, hold on, the maybe obvious answer is, “well, sure.” Artists, of course, do not create for attention. I would emphatically argue that being noticed is not the main impetus for creating anything. Not even close. But for most artists, receiving some applause for their labors is an emotional pull that is fairly strong. And rightfully so, because, to paraphrase Peter Brook, all that is necessary for art to happen is a story — told through any medium — and an audience. Having an audience does matter, but having any size audience is often elusive for artists, especially for those more concerned with making art than money. Struggling against the muck and mire of being underappreciated is a wearisome fight that most artists contend with from time to time. And, succumbing to the muck and mire, it’s a fight which causes some artists to cease creating.
I only know Dave Rawlings through his music. I’ve never met the man and have never interviewed him. I can state with zero epistemic assurance that his name being buried deep in the credits of some of this generation’s finest albums, credits within sight of only the most diligent of music geeks, has resonated sorrowfully with whatever artistic need to be seen that he possesses. But I can make that claim with a level of existential assurance that’s been born out of decades of interacting with artists from all disciplines. A mere two albums bearing the name of Dave Rawlings on the cover does not come close to sounding the artistic crash in the forest with a worthy enough of a boom needed to adequately signal his creative contribution. Hopefully, however, Nashville Obsolete, his current project, will encourage casual fans to dig deep into the prodigious credits of Rawlings. Not to mention the fact that Nashville Obsolete is filled with gorgeous music.
Rawlings has been making music with Gillian Welch for nearly two decades, and Welch’s beautifully intimate voice is prominently featured on Nashville Obsolete. I’m not sure why the duo has worked out a partnership that seemingly shuffles Rawlings out of the spotlight; to be clear, I’m not second-guessing a partnership, both personal and musical, that works. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. But, on a personal level, I do wish that more people were aware of Dave Rawlings’ considerable offering to our society’s music library, even if he doesn’t care. Hopefully Nashville Obsolete will help give Rawlings his due recognition.
As far as pairing beer with Nashville Obsolete, it’s starting to feel like a tautology to state that the music I choose to highlight in this column makes for a natural pairing with beer. Of course it does! It’s Americana, whatever that means to you. And beer, with my apologies to any European readers, has become Americana in its own right, thanks in large part to the craft beer movement of the past three-plus decades. Regions are beginning to lay claim to distinct flavors and styles; thanks to draconian distribution laws, some of the best beer in this country can only be found by traveling to places that exist as a place in a multitude of colorful ways. If need be, I recommend playing Nashville Obsolete as you travel around in search of the following beers; no need to wait for the beer before enjoying the album.
There is a potential problem to pairing beers with Rawlings’ pessimistic lyrics; people drowning themselves in sorrow is not something I particularly want to encourage. Thankfully, Dave Rawlings’ power as a songwriter circumvents a one-dimensional experience (not to mention the brilliance of Rawlings’ guitar playing). “The Weekend” opens Nashville Obsolete with as close to a party anthem as Rawlings is ever going to get, and, please don’t click away yet, it’s still so far away, the cops are going to show up to that party way before you ever make it there. But that’s good. You don’t want to party with Rawlings, you want to listen to him as he finds intricate moments of light in an otherwise dismal existence. His voice is perfect for the nuance needed to slough around in the grayness, pulling beauty out without becoming overwhelmed by the melancholy. Brew Gentleman Brewing Company out of Pittsburgh has brewed a stout with wheat alongside the usual barley. This change inserts layers of creaminess and crispness that complement the melancholy and rich darkness of the Build and Destroy Wheat Stout.
“Short Haired Woman Blues”
The guitar solo that opens “Short Haired Woman Blues” should be enough to cause you to collapse deep into your chair; open the Smoking Mirror Porter from Quest Brewing Company, and relish the pairing of two exceptional illustrations of what guitar playing and beer can be. Of course, as attested by the Lifetime Songwriting Award that Rawlings and Welch won last month at the Americana Music Association Awards, the lyrics will weave their way into your contemplation.
“Short Haired Woman Blues” explores the aftermath of the tension found in loving someone who is right for you within the short-game but wrong for you in the long-game. In other words, a song that will resonate with pretty much every person who has reached the age of emotion and empathy. Add in the extra pairing of Gillian Welch’s voice, and it’s a good thing that Quest’s Smoking Mirror Porter has the added dimension of being a smoked porter. The smoke from the peated malt compliments the velvet addition of Welch’s voice to the gnarled sturdiness that is soaked deep in Rawlings’ voice.
A long, rhythmically plodding song, “The Trip” deserves to be paired with a beer that is equally long. Double Jack from Firestone Walker Brewing Company is a big and long-lasting double IPA that doesn’t sacrifice complexity on the altar of large. “The Trip” is the same; while almost eleven minutes in length, not a moment of this exquisitely wrought song feels unnecessary.
From the sparse yet rich lyrics, to the interlocked harmonies of Welch and Rawlings, and through the precisely poignant guitar licks, “The Trip” lays out a life that if not your own, feels like it for almost eleven minutes. Every pain, every moment of tenderness, and every moment of hard-earned insight becomes the listeners, because that’s what artists who are unafraid to be honest create – a shared experience.
A toe-tapping and knee-slapping throwback to Appalachia, “Candy” appears to be out of place on an album as ponderous and thematically heavy as Nashville Obsolete is. But listen to the song. The tone, with a knowing wink, belies the heartfelt yearning that lies just under the surface of the seemingly innocuous lyrics. The word “candy” prompts a myriad of images in people, and the word is effectively used by Rawlings to hang a variety of life circumstances on.
For many, pale ales represent a style that is the less serious sibling of the IPA. And, for the most part, their assessment is correct. There are some notable exceptions, but one of the standouts among the standouts is the Fresh Hop Pale Ale brewed by Denver’s Great Divide Brewing. The Fresh Hop takes its name seriously, and the bracing green of fir trees makes its presence known as soon as the cap is popped off the bottle. However, this is no pleasantly one-dimensional beer; the Fresh Hop blends malt lushness with plenty of mouth-watering hop bitterness. Like “Candy,” the Fresh Hop may be balanced, but even if you don’t appreciate the layers, the initial impression is more than enough to leave you wanting more.
“Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)”
In the first verse of “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home),” the urge to travel/wander is connected to the fall of man in the Garden of Eden and the subsequent expulsion from “home.” Referring to that event as “the great escape,” Rawlings lays out a path that is fraught with loneliness because “the poet ain’t the tumbleweed.” It’s no accident that the admonishment “you can’t go home,” closes out Nashville Obsolete. Deep into the traveling career of an artist who, while charting well-worn paths, does not follow parallel lines with the polished and paved road of larger, more ironed-out tastes, Rawlings confesses his fear of being found so far afield as to be obsolete. Thankfully, for us, his fear is kept in check by the spirit of the searching artist who is incapable of becoming complacent with his voice, even if that complacency holds out the promise of “Paradise.”
The comforting yet experimental personality of Proof Brewing Company’s Mango Wit goes well with a song that walks the tightrope between demonizing and glorifying the wandering, uprooted life. Mango Wit is, first and foremost, a witbier; a style with the comforting features that rest in the earthy solidity of wheat beers but that encourages experimentation and individualism. Proof Brewing Company, reflecting its Florida home, adds tropical zest through the generous inclusion of organic, fresh mangos in the brewing process.
Nashville Obsolete contains only seven tracks, but those seven tracks contain enough music to fill several albums. With substantial help from pals Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers) and Willie Watson (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show), Dave Rawlings and his partner Gillian Welch masterfully corral those seven tracks into a cohesive, benchmark roots-music album that has many possible beer pairings. Please experiment and let me know, using the comment section below, which beers you’ve found go well with Nashville Obsolete.