It rained all afternoon in Asheville last Friday, just as it’s rained almost every afternoon all summer. Global warming, it seems, is turning our little mountain town into a subtropical valley in the Smokies.
As the minutes crept toward 8 p.m., when Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings were set to take the stage just outside town, at the outdoor theater at Brevard Music Center, the clouds cut it out and the night cleared up. By the time they wrapped “Elvis Presley Blues” — a couple tunes into the set — there were crickets chirping and a late-summer, laidback, swampy vibe creeping about the place.
They moved through a two-set evening full of tunes pulled from the past 20 years since Welch’s debut. “Red Clay Halo” was, as always, a crowd-pleaser. “Time (The Revelator)” seemed a revelation, between the muggy air and Rawlings’ still-somehow-perfectly-in-tune guitar. I found myself thinking about how well I’ve come to know this scene. Though I’ve seen them live fewer than a dozen times, there’s something about Welch and Rawlings’ music that’s always so familiar, even as it is unmatchable.
For starters, I’ve seen Welch perform in that same dress a handful of other times, months and years between shows. Not usually one to comment on the way women dress onstage (Rawlings is almost always in a suit and all men’s suits look the same to me), there’s something to be said about deliberate onstage costuming. I’ve seen her in this dress, a Nudie Suit-like outfit, and a small handful of other getups through the years. It’s clear that the pair has a stage wardrobe — something into which they’ve put some thought, as in, “This outfit better represents what I’m doing musically than anything I might wear out of the van that day.” Their costuming is a throughline in their artistic endeavors, and when they take the stage as the Dave Rawlings Machine, they’re often all in denim. But as the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings duo, there’s this other handful of stage clothes to which they turn — clothing that’s vaguely old-timey, Southern, folksy.
It’s worth mentioning because Welch is a Californian who studied music in Boston and now lives in Nashville. She didn’t come of age in the red clay about which she sings. The nostalgia that oozes through songs like “Dixie” is imagined, albeit completely nailed. Twenty years since her debut album, she noted this night, she still feels connected to her first crop of songs. That’s not surprising. Welch’s allegiance to American roots music of the folk and trad-country and old-time varietals has landed her, onstage, in a sort of persona, and her clothing underscores that in a way that your average run-of-the-mill folksinger’s deliberately unconsidered garb does not. Where other singer-songwriters may wear their heart on their sleeve, let rip stream-of-consciousness songs, and hit the stage in whatever they woke up wearing, everything about Welch’s work — from her wardrobe to her less-is-more lyricism and the way her rhythmic strumming plays against Rawlings’ masterful lead lines — is poetry. It’s the difference between a well-lit selfie at a national park and Ansel Adams’ portraits of Joshua Tree.
I’ve heard Welch criticized on occasion for inauthenticity, considering her actual roots versus those about which she sings. But artists are not required to create only from first-hand experience. Homing in on the universality of human experience, through the lens of simple and old-timey musicianship, is laudable … and also hard.
Beyond their costuming, though, I’ve become so familiar with the way the duo pulses, counting into a song together, that I can see it when I hear their records. I can see Rawlings’ boyish grin when he’s lost in a particularly juicy solo — that grin that seems to say, “Looky what I can do, guys.” Like a magician who just learned a new trick. He shakes his guitar, like that arpeggiated chord was trapped, up somewhere behind the sound hole, and if he can wiggle it just so, the solo will pour right out, like so many marbles. And that’s how the notes sound — a jumble of notes, distinct and tumbling in both rhythm and tone. Certainly nothing that any pair of hands could just … do.
There’s the way the pair handles their diminuendoes — their perfectly matched voices back off the notes at the same time, the same rate, by the same degree. It’s a light dimming at the end of a line, a little bit of vocal magic on “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll,” when they pull off the phrase “drowning me out,” to where the final consonant is inaudible. They are literally drowned out by their own musicality. It’s not straight singing. It’s more artful than all that.
But then, that’s what I’ve come to expect from Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. They exude showmanship without being showy; an old-timey character without being pretentious; authenticity through an exacting imagination. In a more perfect world, such artistry wouldn’t be the exception to the rule, but in 2016 it absolutely is. Taking it in, in person, feels like breathing in a rare clear night, the crickets chirping at a high moon, in the midst of a too-rainy summer.