There's a recurring skit Dave Rawlings sometimes brushes off during his concerts that he and his band mate, the esteemed Gillian Welch, like to call "It's Not the Guitar." Having fielded unending questions from guitar nerds about what type of guitar Rawlings plays—as if possessing such secret information would magically unlock untapped abilities in the inquisitor—the two switch guitars, Welch plays a ragged version of "Wildwood Flower" on Rawlings' old 1935 National archtop guitar, and the truth is clear.
It's not the guitar.
"A lot of people have picked up my little guitar over the years and said, 'This doesn't sound that good,'" laughs Rawlings from the road, on tour between Los Angeles and Tucson. "There is a certain way to play that instrument to make it sound good; it's just not necessarily the most obvious. You sort of have to manhandle it."
Rawlings, who appears with Welch and members of the Old Crow Medicine Show at the Mystic Theatre Feb. 8, is among the most unique guitarists in modern bluegrass. Like the singular late saxophonist Eric Dolphy, Rawlings has a habit of incorporating dissonant notes that land just a little off-kilter into his melodic solos. "I don't know why those notes appeal to me, but they always have. As soon as I started playing any instrument, I had a predisposition for those sounds," he explains.
"Playing those notes," he adds, "means I don't have to worry too much about going, 'Well, I've got to think of something that doesn't sound like other people.' And, I mean, I'm terrible at sounding like other people."
What he's amazing at is sounding like himself. On Gillian Welch's sublime 2001 album Time (The Revelator), Rawlings' surreal playing makes the 14-minute "I Dream a Highway" go by in what seems like two or three minutes; it also provides an exciting moment on the live-recorded "I Want to Play that Rock and Roll," when his iconic solo, with occasional notes just askance of proper, rumbles to a rigorous close, rousing the audience at the Ryman Auditorium to audible, disbelieving joy.
A Friend of a Friend, Rawlings' new album made to tide over fans waiting six years for another Gillian Welch record (she's working on one, he consoles), isn't just a fine showcase for his playing, heard in its most morphine-like quality on the lengthy cover of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer." "Ruby" and "Bells of Harlem" show Rawlings' commanding songwriting and voice, which he casually says has a "lack of prettiness."
"When I say 'lack of prettiness,'" he clarifies, "I don't necessarily mean that as a bad thing. It's hard for me to appreciate my own voice, that's true, but I'm at least intellectually aware that I like male vocalists with reedy, strange voices. Those are my favorite kinds of singers."
Combined in medley with "Cortez the Killer" is the Bright Eyes song "Method Acting," originally sung by the reedy, strange voice of Conor Oberst. Once a feisty, uptempo outlet for Oberst's angst, Rawlings draws out a heretofore unrecognized sorrow in the song's inward-looking lyrics. "That's one of the great things about music," Rawlings says. "It can go a few different ways, as long as there's some sort of underlying emotional truth to it. Are you familiar with the Joe Cocker version of 'With a Little Help from My Friends'? I always thought that was a great cover, and very valid, because it sounded like Joe had completely different friends."
Traveling on a string of dates with his own friends, Rawlings says the tour's set list comprises his record, his recordings with Welch, some Old Crow songs and, as always, a handful of covers. It's a troubadour revue that's not to be missed.
Rawlings' last day job was working as a bar back and glass-runner at the enormous Wright's Farm Restaurant in Rhode Island, and he says that his perpetual smile onstage isn't just an act—that he feels blessed to play onstage night after night. It shows.
"The moment that someone gave me $65 playing guitar in a country band one night," he says, "I knew I would never work another straight job in my life. 'Cause that seemed like all the money in the world to me."
The Dave Rawlings Machine plays Monday, Feb. 8, at the Mystic Theatre. 23 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 8pm. $28&–$30. 707.765.2121.