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Acclaimed alt-country collaborator David Rawlings steps up to the mike

Peter Mongillo
Along with his Machine, David Rawlings plays the Parish tonight and Monday. Mark Seliger photo

David Rawlings usually thrives behind the scenes. He is perhaps best known as singer-songwriter Gillian Welch's musical other half. Roots rock and alt-country fans also know him as the producer for neo-bluegrass outfit Old Crow Medicine Show and as a constant collaborator with acts such as Bright Eyes and Ryan Adams.

Rawlings takes full advantage of his history of associations on the debut release from the David Rawlings Machine, a band consisting of him, Welch, members of Old Crow Medicine Show and others, who appear tonight at the Parish in the first of a two-night stand in Austin. A couple of prominent tracks on the album, "Friend of a Friend," were penned with other musicians, including "To Be Young," a collaboration with Adams for the acclaimed "Heartbreaker" album from 2000 (it was also heard in the Will Ferrell comedy "Old School").

His love for the song led him to re-record it.

"I wanted to do a slightly different take on it; a little bit more of a (country-style) take," he says, adding that his desire to reimagine the track was mixed with a bit of hesitation about changing the original. He fondly recalls his experience recording the "Heartbreaker" version, which begins with a bit of studio chatter, "Argument With David Rawlings Concerning Morrissey," in which the two musicians make a bet about which Morrissey album contains a certain track. "I've had people ask who won the bet for 10 years," he says.

The album also includes "Method Acting," a song originally written and recorded by Bright Eyes (aka Conor Oberst). In a move that might seem more suited to a college jam band than a roots music veteran, Rawlings segues into Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" on the same track. While the idea of combining the two songs sounds a bit cliched, Rawlings' voice, combined with the sparse, haunting production, turns the track into a highlight of the album.

As effortless as it sounds, Rawlings says that his inaugural duties as a lead vocalist — Welch does most of the singing on the duo's other recordings, including their beloved 2001 effort "Time (The Revelator)" — posed the biggest challenge in recording the album. "It wasn't as different as it could have been, but it was different to have to deal with my voice for sure," he says. "A lot of times I just had to go off into my own world to figure out how to sing the songs, and that was a extra little weight."

Rawlings added that his penchant for collaboration, along with his experience as a producer, has given him tools to help him get through the challenging bits of both songwriting and recording.

"If I hear something, I generally have ideas about how to complete it or how I'd like it to sound," he says. "Working by myself, on this record, I try to treat it the same way, but I try to ignore the fact that it's me."

As far as what we can expected from his two-night run in Austin, Rawlings says that the band's familiarity with one another is a definite strong suit. "We've got a pretty good batch of stuff that we can pull from, and we've got a few other little surprises here and there."