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David Rawlings finds inspiration from songs vintage and new

The Dave Rawlings Machine includes (from left) John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, David Rawlings and longtime musical partner Gillian Welch, Paul Kowert of the Punch Brothers and Willie Watson of Old Crow Medicine Show.
The Dave Rawlings Machine includes (from left) John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, David Rawlings and longtime musical partner Gillian Welch, Paul Kowert of the Punch Brothers and Willie Watson of Old Crow Medicine Show. Andy Tennille

David Rawlings says his band was the beneficiary of serendipity.

But it seems more likely the Dave Rawlings Machine was the consequence of hard work, a stellar reputation and mutual admiration.

The Machine comprises Rawlings; his longtime touring and songwriting partner, Gillian Welch (guitar and vocals); Willie Watson, formerly of the Old Crow Medicine Show (guitar and banjo); Paul Kowert of the Punch Brothers (upright bass); and former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones (mandolin).

Jones’ membership was a couple of years in the making, he said.

“I got lucky,” Rawlings told The Star recently. “Gillian and I had met him before at MerleFest, when he’d come as a spectator. He’d jump in, and we’d play a little music with him. After that, we bumped into him in Nashville a few times.

“The first time I toured on the first Dave Rawlings Machine record, we did a little run through Europe and the U.K. About the time we hit the ground in Ireland, I think, we got a call from him. He asked us if we’d fancy some mandolin, and we said sure.

“At that time I was playing with Gillian and three guys from Old Crow Medicine Show. That was the lineup, until John came over. He sort of rode along in the minivan and played some shows. We had a really good time.”

Rawlings booked a longer tour for the Machine, one that stops at the Uptown Theater on Tuesday. This time, Rawlings made the call to Jones, asking him to join the band.

“I knew he was busy, but I asked if he had a few windows here and there and if he wanted to be an official member,” Rawlings said. “He thought about it for a day or two and said it sounded like good fun.”

Rawlings’ association with Watson goes back almost 15 years, he said, and includes some studio work with the Old Crow Medicine Show.

“I met Willie back in 2001 or so,” he said. “And I’d worked with him, producing records. So it felt natural for him to play some shows with us.”

He met Kowert while performing at a concert honoring the music of the Coen Brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

“We played together in rehearsal and during the show,” Rawlings said. “We really fit together well. He’s such a talented young guy. So I called him up, and he had the time, too.”

Rawlings has associations via the studio with a variety of bands and songwriters, including Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst. He contributed to Adams’ breakthrough album, “Heartbreaker,” released in 2000. He recalled the process of writing “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High),” which Rawlings included in the Machine’s album, “A Friend of a Friend.”

“Ryan had moved to Nashville and was coming over to the house,” Rawlings said. “Sometimes we’d sit around, have a few drinks and bang around on the guitar. One night we started playing this song that had this Stones kind of melody. We played around with it for a while, and it kind of fell by the wayside. But I really liked it. I thought it was a cool song.

“The next day, I remembered it the best I could and did a little work on it and got it into a place where I could sing it. Ryan came over later and I said, ‘I really liked that song we were working on,’ and he said, ‘What song?’ I played some of it and he was like, ‘Oh, yeah. That song.’ So we finished it and that was that.

“That’s a little how it is with Ryan. He’s a real quick study when he writes. There’s not a lot of going back and looking at stuff after it’s written. Songs are like shooting stars going by.”

In addition to Rawlings’ version of “To Be Young,” “A Friend of a Friend” includes a cover of Oberst’s “Method Acting,” which Rawlings mashed into “Cortez the Killer,” a Neil Young song.

Rawlings played guitar on several tracks of “Cassadaga,” an album by Oberst and his band, Bright Eyes. He and Oberst met at a festival.

“I’d discovered Conor right around the time ‘Digital Ash’ and ‘I’m Wide Awake’ came out,” he said. “I became a big fan. We both played the Newport Folk Festival one year. We’d already played and were watching Conor play, and he ran over to the side of the stage and said, ‘I love you,’ and I said, ‘We love you, too.’ We both knew each other’s stuff. And we talked a lot about that.”

From Adams, Oberst and Welch, his musical partner of almost 20 years, he has learned much about songwriting and performing. From Welch, he learned to refine the art of collaboration.

“We like a lot of the same music,” he said. “When we started to write together, we’d figure out in this kind of natural way what parts needed to be changed and how to make the song better.

“With Ryan, you kind of have to really be present in the room and on your toes. He has this ability to get really excited about something as it happens. He’s real open to what’s happening at the moment.

“And with Conor, I’ve had the chance to play guitar with him when Mike (Mogis) wasn’t available. There’s this kind of energy of just getting up there and letting it go without spending a lot of time working out parts. When you work with someone like that, it can take you to a place where you’re really moved by the music and want to be a part of it.”

Rawlings said he and the Machine indulge in that kind of spirit.

“I’ve always been a fairly spontaneous band leader,” he said. “I like for a lot to happen onstage or near the stage. The last tour we did, everyone flew in a few days before and we played for a few hours the night before. And that was it. We talked about some stuff we might try and then hit the ground running and worked it out as we went along.

“A lot of times at sound check or backstage, a song might come up we haven’t played before. We’ll try it onstage and everyone will fall into line. I’m a big fan of acoustic music with a lot of improvisational twists and turns.”

And, thanks to a combination of hard work and luck, everyone in this well-heeled band is more than prepared for it.

“With this band,” he said, “everyone is overqualified to deal with anything I might throw at them.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to


The Dave Rawlings Machine performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Uptown Theater, 3600 Broadway. The Machine features Gillian Welch and John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) plus members of the Punch Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show. Tickets are $36 at