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Dave Rawlings Machine With Gillian Welch: Tiny Desk Concert

David Rawlings is a remarkably gifted producer, session guitarist and singer who's most widely known for his contributions to other musicians' work — particularly his longtime partnership with folk and traditional country artist Gillian Welch. But when he and Welch stopped by NPR for this Tiny Desk Concert, it was to promote Rawlings' own album — the first he's ever recorded under his name (actually, it's under the moniker Dave Rawlings Machine). For A Friend of a Friend, Rawlings took on lead vocals and songwriting duties, and got some of his old friends to help out. Welch appears throughout the album, of course, along with other artists such as Ketch Secor and Morgan Jahnig of Old Crow Medicine Show.

Welch and Rawlings settled in to play together at Bob Boilen's desk as easily as if they were slipping on a pair of old boots. They've got the sort of magnetic chemistry that comes with writing and recording together for more than 15 years, but even with that history and their friendship, the two had to rethink the way they do things for Friend of a Friend.

"A lot of the arrangements we'd worked out over the years — the way we put chords, the way we sing together — I was shocked at how little they worked for my voice or my record," Rawlings says.

"We had learned to make records in a particular way because we were always framing [Welch's] voice, which is this large, takes-up-a-lot-of-space, very intimate, very good-sounding thing," he adds. "A beautiful tone. So you can frame it in a skeletal way. It almost seems to me that the less you put on her records, the more powerful they are. But when we started working that way with my voice, which is so different, it turned out that nothing from that approach was valid. So we had to find different sounds and treatments that we were happy with. I was really surprised when we started that we were in territory as uncharted as we were. We broke new ground from necessity."

In this Tiny Desk Concert recording, Rawlings and Welch give a breathtaking performance to a packed office at NPR Music. Each was getting over a bad case of bronchitis, though you'd never know it. For a typical soundcheck, most artists will piddle through a few bars of something. But Rawlings and Welch took a full, and utterly thrilling, run through Bill Monroe's "I'm on My Way Back to the Old Home." It was almost as though they couldn't stop once they started. If they hadn't stopped, that would have been fine by us.

To watch our most recent Tiny Desk Concert, featuring Brooklyn Rider, click here.

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Robin Hilton is a producer and co-host of the popular NPR Music show All Songs Considered.
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