There are few figures in the Americana community who are as respected and beloved as David Rawlings. The songwriter, guitar slinger, producer and longtime Gillian Welch collaborator is one of the pioneers of the form, having played integral roles in such monumental releases as Welch’s 2001 Grammy-nominated Time (The Revelator), Ryan Adams’ 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s 2004 self-titled studio debut.
Not to mention, of course, his own solo work. Rawlings has already released two excellent solo albums – Friend of a Friend and Nashville Obsolete – under the Dave Rawlings Machine moniker, and now he’s preparing to release a third solo collection under his own name.
Poor David’s Almanack, out August 11th, brings together all of what makes Rawlings such a singular musician: intricate arrangements, unusual musical flourishes (Rawlings is known for eliciting some unorthodox sounds out of his trademark 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop guitar), narrative storytelling and a killer band. This time around, that band includes Welch, Willie Watson, Paul Kowert, Brittany Haas, Ketch Secor, and Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith of Dawes. The group recorded the album with Ken Scott and Matt Andrews at Rawlings and Welch’s own Woodland Sound Studios in Nashville.
Rolling Stone Country is premiering a new track from Poor David’s Almanack, the Southern Gothic stomp “Cumberland Gap.” As Rawlings explains, the track was a vital piece in finishing out Poor David’s Almanack, as it was one of the last songs to be completed in what he describes as “the fastest [they] ever made a record.”
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“That song was written a little later than the first batch of songs for this record,” Rawlings tells Rolling Stone Country. “It started out as a groove and melody and chords. The music felt like it had some kind of adventurous feeling, or a feeling of pioneering. I had been working to come up with a title or a theme or hook. One night as I was sitting playing through the music, the ‘Cumberland Gap’ words sprung to mind.”
The Cumberland Gap – a small pass in the stretch of the Appalachian Mountains where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia meet – has long been fodder for song. Jason Isbell recently explored the hardships of working class life in The Nashville Sound cut “Cumberland Gap,” while a traditional folk song of the same name has been making the rounds since the late 19th century. Woody Guthrie recorded a famous version of the latter during his Folkways Records sessions.
In Rawlings’ interpretation, the Gap is “a devil of a gap,” telling the tale of a man preparing to make his way through the pass as part of a dangerous pilgrimage to Kentucky. The song’s message is made all the more ominous by a stomping beat, frantic electric guitar and ghostly vocal harmonies. Welch helped Rawlings finish the tune’s powerful narrative.
“I started singing it and I liked the ring of it, but I wasn’t sure what the story was going to be,” he explains. “I played it for Gillian and she immediately gravitated to that. It took her to a narrative place. She took it and started writing the story of it and then we worked on finishing it together. It was more clear-cut than songwriting sometimes is.”
Though Rawlings and Welch have been writing together for years, he explains that there is no tried and true formula the pair follows when it comes to writing songs. In fact, the songs on Poor David’s Almanack challenged a good bit of the songwriting structure the two did have in place.
“Every song follows its own path,” Rawlings says. “Sometimes it takes years and sometimes it takes hours. It’s hard to know. A lot of the songs on this record followed a similar path, which was actually kind of unusual, to be honest. As a general rule, if I look at our career, it’s more common for Gillian to start the songs and more common for me to finish them. But this record was a bit of a flip of that.”
It’s not so surprising, then, that Rawlings would opt to release Poor David’s Almanack as “David Rawlings.” Start to finish, the album is a testament both to his immeasurable talent and to his essential place in the roots and Americana music scene. It’s also a chance for a guy otherwise happy to play sideman or stand behind the boards to step out just a touch further into a well-deserved spotlight.
“A lot of the music I’ve listened to and loved over the years, I guess you’d consider it singer-songwriter,” he explains. “Or folk. I don’t know what you want to call it. But there’s a tradition in that genre of working under your own name… In a way this felt like my first record because of the way the songs were written. It felt like it was time to call it David Rawlings and be done with it.”