Back in September I accompanied 33 of my college seminarians to Washington, DC to be with Pope Francis. It wasn’t a vacation. It was a pilgrimage.
A vacation is supposed to be comfortable, predictable, controllable, restful, and pleasant. A pilgrimage, however, can be difficult, dangerous, unpredictable, grueling, and painful. A vacation is meant to offer refreshment, and you generally come back from vacation the same person, but rested. But a pilgrimage transforms your life. And if a pilgrim does return home, things change, because the pilgrim has been changed.
Nashville Obsolete, the latest album from Dave Rawlings Machine, is seven-track, forty-four minute collection of undeniably American music by Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch. Rawlings and Welch have been making music together for twenty years, releasing records and playing shows both under “Gillian Welch” and “Dave Rawlings Machine”, depending upon which one of them is doing more of the songwriting and vocal leads. But the truth is, as Welch told the Wall Street Journal a few years ago, “We’re the artist.”
If you’re not familiar with Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch, my guess is that you may be familiar with their music, as it was featured in the Coen Brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? back in 2000. That soundtrack helped revive the folk, blue grass, traditional country, and root music tradition and presented it to a whole new generation of listeners. On Nashville Obsolete Rawlings and Welch are joined by Willie Watson (Old Crow Medicine Show), Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers), Brittany Hass (Crooked Still), and Jordan Tice for a fantastic collection of songs that do indeed take the listener on a pilgrimage.
The album opens with “The Weekend”, a melodically breezy but lyrically melancholic track that, with one single strum of the guitar, commences the pilgrimage. And what would a pilgrimage be without meeting some new people along the way? Rawlings sings, “There’s the ballerina, the foreign cartel/ the opera singer, the southern bell/ They’ve all got something, strange and new/ They’ve all got something, but not like you.” As the song progresses, the narrator recounts more loss and grief, but by the final verse confesses, “now my heart is full”, as somehow the mysterious weekend transforms his sorrow to joy.
A couple of weeks ago, Rawlings and Welch released the video for “The Weekend”, in which they star as themselves.
Like Jack Kerouac, they pack the bare essentials (guitars, beach blanket, and radio) and drive a white 1965 Chevy Impala all the way from Nashville to California in one weekend. Although the video is not a strict lyrical interpretation, the spirit of pilgrimage is present, particularly in their car troubles, which they claim really happened, on their way to the beaches of the sunshine state.
“Short Haired Woman Blues” is a splendid song title, but it’s not original. Townes Van Zant wrote a song of the very same name, of which I’m guessing inspired Rawlings and Welch to compose this second track of Nashville Obsolete. Rawlings’ script is much heavier than Van Zant’s, as his narrator offers a prophetic warning of the dangers of short haired women, based on his own experience of losing his innocence next to a train track as a freight train rushed by. Rawlings sings, “Don’t go chasing wild ponies, they’re half crazy and they run/ Don’t go loving short haired women, they’re gonna leave you crying, after thinking it was all in fun.” As the song closes, it builds with strings and harmonies and one more reminder that short haired women will leave you crying. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “The dragon is by the side of the road, watching those who pass by. Beware lest he devour you.” In this narrative, the woman “with her hair cut like a farm boy” is the dragon. There are perils to pilgrimage. Consider yourself warned.
The longest and perhaps best song on Nashville Obsolete is “The Trip”, and it’s rightly named, with almost eleven minutes worth of eight half-absurd, half-profound Dylanesque verses, a trippy existential chorus, with a few signature Dave Rawlings’ guitar runs interspersed. Each verse is a sort of snapshot of some macabre strangeness, which may give a narrative critic a headache, but relief comes in the refrain, “So take a trip wherever your conscience has to roam/ It’s much too hard to try to live a lie at home.”
In his classic work After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues, “The unity of human life is the unity of a narrative quest.” He explains that a quest always has two key features: first, there can be no beginning to a quest without a telos in mind, and second, that a quest is always an education both as to the character of that which is sought and in self-knowledge. MacIntyre explains, “It is in the course of the quest and only through encountering and coping with the various particular harms, dangers, temptations, and distractions which provide any quest with its episodes and incidents that the goal of a quest is finally understood.” A quest is similar to a pilgrimage, in that the journey, though difficult and perilous, builds the character of those making the journey and displays the importance of the journey’s end. “The Trip” is no vacation.
If we’ve managed thus far to avoid the short haired women and make our way beyond the many perils of “The Trip”, there’s still another obstacle to overcome on our pilgrimage – body snatchers. Rawlings’ songwriting tends toward the wild and humorous, whereas Welch’s to the dark and grotesque, but on “Bodysnatchers” the two styles seem to merge for a bizarre tale: “Everything’s predictable in this little river town/ Barges and tobacco, drinking straight Kentucky brown/ Mama’s bunions swelling when there’s evil creeping round/ Like bodysnatchers.” The refrain is a falsetto cry, “You better get back, get back, get back/ You better get back, you body snatchers”, resisting the enemy charge. As the pilgrimage becomes more arduous, the pilgrim gains strength.
Gillian Welch has said that her audience is intelligent, and that as songwriters she and Rawlings don’t feel the need to spell out every detail in order explain the general action of the stories contained in their songs. Most of the time I would agree with Welch, and I would imagine that most listeners of Nashville Obsolete would like to know that Welch thinks them intelligent. However, the most cryptic track on the record for me is “Last Pharaoh”, and I freely admit that I lack the intelligence to offer a clear interpretation. I can’t figure out if the song is about a simple card game being played on a train, with the narrator waiting for a high card to win the game, or if the card game is actually a metaphor for our pilgrimage, or maybe even the parousia. Either way, Rawlings sings, “Lady luck is with me, I know” and he sounds pretty confident.
On Rawlings last record, A Friend of a Friend (2009), Rawlings and Welch sing the unforgettable “Sweet Tooth”, a catchy, fun, seemingly lighthearted tune until you realize it’s also about addiction. “Candy” is a sister (or at least a cousin) to “Sweet Tooth” on Nashville Obsolete. It’s the same bright sound, but this time the subject matter is not addiction but candy, however, Rawlings plays with the meaning as he goes back and forth between Candy the person and Candy the sugary food: “Now who’s that coming down the aisle, is it Candy?/ Now what makes everybody smile, is it Candy?/ There’s something sticky on the floor, is it Candy?/ Does somebody want a little more, is it Candy?” As far as our pilgrimage theme goes, this song may represent the incoherent dreams that pilgrims have from time to time on their journey. It’s a nice preparation for our final push.
Nashville Obsolete actually concludes with a song entitled “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)”, lest you think that I was fabricating all this pilgrimage business. “Pilgrim” is Rawlings’ best apocryphal songwriting, with images of devils, Gabriel, St. Columba, angels, a golden calf, and a pillar of smoke accompanied by tight harmonies and sad refrain: “Where you gonna run?/ Tell me where will you roam?/ When you can’t go home/ Oh pilgrim, you can’t go home.” But not all is lost for the pilgrim or for us. The journey isn’t over, and Rawlings and Welch send the listener off with a big, warm, blanket of encouragement as the record closes: “So keep rolling, rolling down that road that you’re on/ keep rolling, rolling, rolling on…” And you believe them.
On a personal note, this final track has been a great comfort to me as of late. A couple of weeks ago I handed over the keys to my childhood home, as my dad has been in a nursing home for the past eighteen months and we ran out of money and needed to sell. My dad will never go back to his home, and neither will I. But we both know that our old bungalow in Parma, Ohio was never our real home anyway. And without getting too sappy, “Pilrgim” has been a good reminder of that reality for me. My dad and I will keep rolling.
In Lumen Gentium, a major constitution of the Second Vatican Council, we are reminded that the church is a pilgrim church – a church on its way. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we are all pilgrims, so the council is wise to remind us of our identity: “The pilgrim church, in its sacraments and institutions, which belong to this present age, carries the mark of this world which will pass, and it takes its place among the creatures which groan and until now suffer the pains of childbirth and wait the revelation of the children of God.” I don’t know if David Rawlings and Gillian Welch are believers or not, but they both know a good deal about human living. They’re not Chaucer or Dante, but Rawlings and Welch both understand and appreciate the value of a pilgrimage, and on Nashville Obsolete, they make a small but significant contribution to the pilgrimage tradition.
Dave Rawlings Machine is currently on tour supporting Nashville Obsolete. If Dave and Gillian come to a town near you, don’t miss the show. Trust this pilgrim when he tells you that their musicianship and professionalism will make your pilgrimage just a little more beautiful.