Throughout the last two years my musical tastes have undergone a bit of a shift. It used to be a relentless pursuit anything that had a blazing guitar solo, any opus that would wander for 15+ minutes into territory that was usually only captured on stage, rather than in a studio. I was, for all intents and purposes, feasting on a steady diet of “jambands.” I’ve never really understood that label, but at the end of the day, it is what it is. They jam. I just think it discounts all the other genres those bands pull from to weave together their sound. I digress.
I still enjoy the 17 minute versions of Love Tractor by touring machine Widespread Panic, and I still love it when ITunes randomly throws me a block of Grateful Dead songs. But in an attempt to branch out, what I really look for and enjoy is simpler. Strings. Lots of them. Fiddles, banjos, mandolins or guitars, I’ve got a thirst for simplicity when it comes to the music. No need for the big amplifiers or cabinets on stage. No, no, I want minimal amplification, and I want the songwriting craft to sit front and center. Trying to satisfy my search for what I really wanted, about a year and a half ago I came across Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch. And as quick as my pursuit had begun, it was over.
I’d heard of Gillian Welch, sure. She’s was the one who sings all that yodeling heartache stuff, right? Seriously, who had time for that when there was another Grateful Dead cover to hear for the 5,000th time? Nah. No time. I’m sure it’s good, but no thanks. I’d never heard of David Rawlings either, and once I stumbled across he and Welch’s efforts, the change was on. Standing in a field in Western Maryland, listening to the two of them play their set to close out DelFest, the annual bluegrass festival named in honor of Del McCoury, I realized. Corner, turned.
I wasn’t discounting the endless times I’d listened to all those other bands, I was, I felt, growing up a bit. There was substance here to this sound I’d ignored for years. There was substance to these two that I hadn’t ever really experienced before, especially in a live music setting. The nimble picking of Rawlings on guitar and haunting lyrics of Welch’s voice were almost as perfect a musical combination I’d ever heard. It wasn’t an eye-opening performance, it was a personal musical enlightenment, the realization that when I pulled back the curtain a little bit-there was after all-more to be heard.
In 2010, Welch and Rawlings, her musical partner of over a decade, joined up with portions of the folk/bluegrass titans Old Crow Medicine Show to form Dave Rawlings Machine, the first musical effort of Rawlings’ to bear his name. They were my musical revelation of the year, but still, I felt I had been late to the party. After all, Welch and Rawlings had been recording together for years, and I almost felt foolish for being such a late arrival. Some musical genres lend themselves to a constant one-upping, repeated stories of how many Phish shows you’ve seen, or the time you saw Widespread Panic at Jones Beach and they killed that version of Space Wrangler. Around these parts, it seems a little different. It’s not about when you got there. It’s fine-as long as you make it.