For almost two decades, pundits in the music industry have debated whether Americana was a marketable genre and even how to define it. As Bob Dylan sang in "Ballad of A Thin Man," something different has been happening in music since the early 90s even if we don't know what it is. And however this rich era may be chronicled in the future, David Rawlings will surely be noted as one of the great guitarists of our time. He is a musician of singular invention, renown for his inspired melodies and a personal style that weaves seamlessly with the guitar and voice of longtime musical partner Gillian Welch. Fans of Gillian and David look forward to the times when during a performance, David's imagination seems to catch fire as he drives his ancient Epiphone Olympic into uncharted territory. For guitar fans, there's nothing better than hearing David at that moment of discovery when he finds the notes he's been searching for and dramatically reels them in--phrase by phrase--until they are caught, fried, and served. Epiphone.com spoke with Mr. Rawlings on the eve of a short summer tour and the first rehearsals for a new album. We also brought along our new Epiphone Masterbilt Century Olympic to the interview so David could check it out ("This is nice--they only did that headstock in '33") and compare it to his own singular Olympic which has been his main instrument since 1994.
Tell me the story of how you got your Epiphone Olympic. What year is it?
Mine is a '35. I found it at a friend's house. I know that at the time I found it, I had it in my head that I was interested in trying to find an instrument that would sit in a little more of a mid-range part of the tonal spectrum. Like a Dobro or a mandolin, as opposed to a dreadnought lead guitar. I thought it would potentially be more versatile--that you could get away with dreadnought licks on a smaller instrument. The flattop--to me--always has that particular tonal characteristic that doesn't have that midrange-forward thing. Even small bodied flattops have a more pronounced bass.
So I had it in my head a little bit that I wanted to try something like that and when I saw my guitar--or what was to become my guitar--laying there in his basement/garage, I could tell right way that the build quality was good even though it didn't have a bridge on it, didn't have strings on it. It looked pretty well made. And the box sounded nice when I tapped on it. So I thought I'd get it up and running and see how it worked for me.
I gave it to (Nashville luthier) Joe Glaser to work on it, but I didn't know him very well. I gave him the guitar shortly after I got to town in the winter of 94-95. We moved here in August of '92 so we were playing around a little bit. I gave Joe the guitar and said I wanted a one piece Ebony bridge--I wanted to get all the sound out of it that we can. And then some months went by and we had talked to T-Bone Burnett about making a record and we had gotten signed by Almo Music. And so when it became clear that we were going to Los Angeles to record the first record, I called Joe and said I'm leaving in two weeks and I need you to do that guitar. And he built the bridge and then I strung it up. I had already packed all the guitars. It was the day before we were leaving and UPS was coming to take all the guitars.
What guitar were you playing at that time?
We weren't really touring at that point. We had been to New York and had done a couple shows. We had been to Knoxville. We had done some regional stuff. We might have been to California. I don't actually remember the chronology. But I was playing an 810 Taylor that I had bought in Providence the day I moved to Nashville. That was pretty much all the money I had to buy a decent acoustic. But the Taylor was a decent guitar and all of the stuff that was on our first record was arranged for that guitar because I just got the Epiphone finished, like I said. I strummed one chord on it and said "that sounds pretty good... I guess I have one more box (laughs)." Honestly, I just had one more shipping box. I didn't even have a case for it. I probably found some old chipboard case and threw it in it. And off it went.
So once you got to the studio, how did you settle on the Olympic?
The first day in the studio we were playing through all the guitars and that was the last one that we tried. Gil had brought her Guild and a couple other Martins that we had managed to find. And nothing was sounding that good to us. And we were trying different mics and she was trying some of T-Bone's small Gibson Nick Lucas reissues. And we played one test recording with me playing the Epiphone and I immediately thought it was a good tone. It did what I imagined--it found a nice spot in the tonal spectrum. And I asked if I could EQ it--which I had never really been in a studio before. Or maybe Rik Pekkonen, the engineer said, 'play around with it and see if you like it.' He showed me a little API equalizer in that room at Sunset Sound. And I ended up boosting the mid range a little on it and finding a spot that I liked. And then we just started tracking and I never played anything else. Even to this day, if I'm playing acoustic guitar on one of our records, it's that instrument.
A lot of archtop fans are fond of using ribbon mics in the recording studio. What do you like to use?
On that first record, we would have been using a Sony C37A, which the engineer Rik Pekkonen had. When he had moved to Los Angeles to be a pro sound engineer in 1959 he bought 4 of these things. It was new in the late 50s--that was a good microphone. In the last 20-30 years, Daniel Lanois brought them back on the scene. I think that's the vocal mic on Emmylou's record Wrecking Ball and maybe Time Out of Mind, the Dylan record. It was also a meat and potatoes mic. If you look on a lot of live recordings from that time--say something recorded live from Town Hall--you'll see those mics being run into a Nagra (tape machine). It's an interestingly designed microphone. It has virtually no gain in the tube or in the microphone. The transformer and a bunch of stuff lives in the power supply. They don't have a lot of gain--you need a lot in your preamp. They have a dark and interesting sound. I tried everything on that guitar and I've never found anything I like as much as that microphone.
I don't really make music in a particularly analytical way but it's easy for me to analyze it after it's made. I like that side of things. I come from a family of mostly engineers and inventors so it's in my nature to think about that kind of stuff.
Since the "Gillian Welch" band is just the two of you, the microphones and the instruments you choose become almost like additional members of the band.
That's right. You need to have a sense of what brings out the best in a sound like that because a lot of the time there are technical things going on that help the artistic things shine. And if you're not paying attention to those things, you might wind up in another situation where the technical things are different and you're not able to get the results you want and you might make artistic changes you don't need to make. So I try to keep my eye on some things. Sometimes there are things you think are a drawback that are helping the mood of the music. Say for the early era of recording that we love, that's an integral part of why you enjoy it.
Your sound seems to travel with you wherever you go. That's probably easier when you stick to just acoustic instruments and use microphones instead of pickups.
We try to use stuff that works. We were really fortunate that we were able to work with T-Bone at that time and learn analog recording the way we learned it even though it was in its sunset at that moment as the primary way that people make records. Once we learned that and I had been encouraged, as soon as we got done with that record we started building our own studio.
I recognized that we were making acoustic duet folk music in the mid 90s and there was nothing going on that we could turn to and say: "well they're incredibly successful and they're just like us." It was a ridiculous concept but its what we wanted to do. And we were young and we didn't have any other bright ideas. It was what we liked and it was what we thought we sounded good doing. But it put me in the mind that we need to be able to do a high quality version of this ourselves in case everything collapses. Of course we made two records on Almo and everything did collapse. And every other indie that we knew was either getting gobbled up or going out of business. That decline had started where music was no longer a commodity. This way we knew that we would be recording for the same company 10 years later. Which I didn't know where else we could do that.
What we you listening to when you and Gillian were forming your sound and developing your arrangements as a duet?
We were listening to a lot of brother-team music for when we were trying to figure out the way we like to sing together. Memory is a funny thing but the groups I remember listening to were the Stanley Brothers... the Blue Sky Boys I loved. Some of the Delmore Brothers. We liked the Lilly Brothers. Rounder Records and Ken Irwin had put out a compilation of one-offs, some stuff that we wouldn't have found in any other way. I was a huge Dylan fan and Neil Young fan. The Band and the Buffalo Springfield...
What guitarists were you listening to?
I suppose in the world of flat picking I gravitated toward Norman Blake's playing. I stole some stuff from Norman for sure. But I wasn't a very good thief from anybody. So I didn't do a lot of focusing on somebody or trying to pick stuff off. I listened to the feeling of things I liked. There are only a handful of times I remember picking out someone's solo. It's a different genre but I remember I always thought Wes Montgomery was a tremendous guitar player. And I remember one Wes Montgomery solo I learned. We were listening to Chet Baker at the time because I loved his phrasing and his harmonic choices as a soloist. He had a very beautiful way of keeping tension in his music--it floats. He never drifts to where he's too consonant. He never drifts to where he's too dissonant. I like that sort of suspended feeling.
I certainly have listened to a lot of acoustic blues. I love Furry Lewis to death. As far as the dissonance in my playing, it always appealed to me. I find it funny to talk about. There's no other way to phrase it.
It seems like the Olympic lends itself to that feeling...
On my little Epiphone, the low E open has about as much volume as something high up the neck on the top E string. It's incredibly balanced. And I had never played a guitar before where I would be soling and I'd find a spot and say "ugh, it's no good here." That guitar (the Olympic), however good it is, is good across the board so it gives you a tremendous amount of freedom when you're playing. You don't have to worry about what register you're in. And if you do hit a close interval--say a second--or a wide interval, that mid range lets those sounds sort of feed against each other and go straight . A lot of it is visual to me, I can see it. And those sounds go a long way, down the highway. On a lot of other instruments they would turn off or they would blend together.
Is that characteristic particular to your Olympic?
A lot of them have some of that character. The main one that I play is a special one in terms of what it does. I haven't found one I would trade it for by any means. I've accumulated a few over the years. I found a (vintage) Zenith not that long ago that has the characteristics of my Olympic. In certain ways, it's the closest thing that I've found. It's a good instrument for playing with another person. I got lucky as a young guitar player because I immediately found work playing in bands. I was just on stage more than I was in my bedroom. That was really helpful for me in figuring what was good and what was bad. That's when you realize that what you're doing is trying to figure out what people enjoy (laughs). Listening to people like the Delmore Brothers--where there was a tenor guitar--or the Blue Sky Boys where there was a mandolin and a guitar--that's what pushed me into wanting to hear something that was in that world. I always thought the bluegrass guitar, at least in my hands, was a pretty rotten instrument. I mean a fiddle, a mandolin--anything else will destroy a guitar unless you're Clarence White or Brian Sutton or someone who can jam that soundhole into a microphone and make it roar. That was never my passion to do that. I don't know if I could if I wanted to with all my heart. There are guitars that you could give them to a dozen different people and they would find a way to make their living. That's my Olympic. It's just that right combination that makes for a magical box.