Interpreting “Nashville Obsolete” by Dave Rawlings Machine

It’s strange to think I owe a debt of gratitude to the Coen brothers for my musical tastes.  The soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” cemented my musical leanings and has influenced the shows I attend and the albums I buy.  Allison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Dan Tyminski, Emmylou Harris, among other great company were put on my radar.  There are a few others whose family trees (artists they’ve worked with or been in bands with) I follow like the Indigo Girls (their Atlanta influence), Nickel Creek (Chris Thile and the Watson Family) where no matter what iteration of band or related artist, it always promises to be a good show, and good music I like.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit to Phil Norman a folk singer of some renown in the greater Blue Ridge/Roanoke Valley for pointing out my first Dave Rawlings show to me.  It was a little more country and folky than I was used to at the time, but the show left me in a state of incredible delight.  Dave in his shows delivers a few covers, collaborations and originals in a beautiful tenor and his signature picking style, with Gillian Welch providing flawless accompanying vocals and guitar; Willie Watson fiddles and guitars while finding room for 3-part harmony and Brittany Haas plays perfect accompanying and solo fiddle.  Paul Kowert of Punch Brothers also plays upright bass with them on occasion.

I’m just beginning to love the new Dave Rawlings’ “Poor David’s Almanack” but wanted to cover my deep love of “Nashville Obsolete” as a masterpiece album of great Southern Americana.  A bit of a mea culpa to start, I have not ever listened all the way thru the track called “The Trip.”  At almost 11 minutes, I have a feeling there is going to be a little too much guitar solo and just haven’t had the patience to let it percolate in my consciousness yet.  Call it the ADHD of the age.  Lyrically “The Trip” helps establish a theme of movement and travel, and lost wandering which permeate the entire album.

The album starts with “the Weekend,” which I think is a great place to start.  It’s ironic to me that someone whose work probably often revolves around the weekend and has a crazy schedule when touring, should sing about the universal longing and almost holy experience of the weekend.  Ever since “Sweet Tooth” I always suspect some sort of drug reference in Dave and Gillian’s songs and “the Weekend” could certainly be interpreted that way, but the great thing about their poetry is they don’t have to spell out the meaning and it is open to interpretation.  I think at its simplest this song is about the infusion of hope we put into a good weekend and how sad we are once it is gone.  This can be said sadly of some relationships as well.  “The good ones never last.”

“Short-Haired Woman Blues” is an aching song about unrequited love.  “Oh, it’s just a game she told me.  I said no, I am reborn.”  The male voice felt the experience more keenly and is heartbroken when the feeling is not returned or when the relationship ends.  He looks back with a tinge of bitterness which he channels into a life lesson about “chasing wild ponies.”  “Don’t go loving short-haired women.  They’re gonna leave you crying, after thinking it was all in fun.”

“Bodysnatchers” is a song about the railroad from the chorus “20 years of lining down the track.”  Dave and Gillian have a fascination with trains and their history; you can pick up references or themes alluding to the train in a lot of their music.  In this case, I believe bodysnatchers is a reference to the sometimes forced labor and indentured servitude that built the railroads, although it also alludes to the barges up the river and Mississippi river queens.  It’s definitely a song about loss, a life spent in labor, often without choice.  I picture a son returning home after a long life of labor and his mother being fiercely protective to make sure he never experiences that life again.

“The Last Pharaoh” proves that Dave & Gillian are students of American history with the reference to “that big Kate Adams” which was a steamer ship on the Mississipi at the turn of the 20th century.  Unlike “Bodysnatchers” we see a different side of the river legacy in a card game.  The narrator is looking for “the last Pharaoh” which may be an allusion to a game called Faro popular in the early 1900s.  Faro is referenced in a lot of popular literature and entertainment of the time.  Natchez is a town along the banks of the Mississippi and King’s Tavern was founded by Richard King in the 18th century, so “lady luck makes the kings, the Natchez kings” could be a direct reference to the King family which was a prominent family in that city and the history of the riverboats benefiting from that commerce and a culture of gambling.  Discounting the possible historical influence it’s a great song about a card game and the pursuit of winning and the gambler’s belief that he can win if he can find the “next high card.”

“Candy” is a good companion song to the popular “Sweet Tooth” from “A Friend of a Friend” and has a delightful simple and repetitive lyric.  Candy in “Sweet Tooth” is a way to talk about drugs and addiction, and I wonder if there is some of that here. “Mama’s got something in her hand,” and “Does someone want a little more” could be read that way, but if we follow the historical theme of the last few songs and the style evocative of earlier folk tunes, I think it may also be an homage to the rampant commercialization of the candy industry in the early 1900s.  Brach’s, Hershey, Reese’s, Mars, all trace their origins to this time period and their success largely has to do with the spread of radio where their jingles and ads proliferated.  Maybe that’s a stretch that a song called Candy could actually be about candy, but it seems that the style of the song and the repetitive lyric signify something more than a person, more than a drug, or a relationship.  It makes me think of old folk tunes playing on the radio in between ads for Hershey bars.

“Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)” is a song about the traveling artist.  It speaks with a longing for home, knowing that the lure of the road will always pull the narrator on despite the struggles of what the open road brings.  “And pity those who never felt inspiration’s cold wet nose.  It wakes you up out in the ditch where you’re tumbling round where the four winds blow.”  There’s alcoholism, poverty, drug abuse, suicide, but “what those devils called your greatest sin, Gabriel and I called your great escape.”  At the end of the song there is a reference to St. James Infirmary which may allude to the Louis Armstrong “St. James Infirmary Blues” which would make sense because both songs deal with the nature of a traveling life, the temptations and the consequences, and Armstrong’s song is from the time period that Dave & Gillian seem to reference throughout.

The theme of movement is thick in this album, whether by train or riverboat.  Loss is felt keenly here, lost love, loss of home, loss of time, and there is a conscious or unconscious age to the material through the style of music, reference to times long gone, and the influence you hear in the music which is a legacy of the great musicians past.  And finally what’s in the album title?  Nashville Obsolete seems to be a challenge, a question, and maybe a self-afflicted label for Dave and company.

Dave and Gillian are masters of their craft and I think he sums it up best when asked how to interpret his work, “…I can talk about the language we work in with Gillian and our personal mythology, but it’s like asking James Joyce why he’s obsessed with certain themes in his books. I’m sure he can tell you why he’s interested in them, but at the deepest and truest level, none of us have any idea.” (excerpted from No Depression interview)