Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and the Sound of Generosity

Michael Morgan

The music industry is not exactly known for self-restraint. Ego runs rampant in the form of trashed hotel rooms (looking at you, Led Zeppelin), vitamin water for pet dogs (ahem, Mariah), and bitter feuds for artistic control (uh … any band with more than one person in it). These are extreme examples taken from the top tier of music celebrity. Drift down quite a bit farther, however, and you’ll find ego abated. You’ll find Dave Rawlings.

The name Dave Rawlings might not immediately drop like a quarter into the mental juke box, so that your mind starts playing his tunes. Perhaps, though, you’ve heard of Gillian Welch, who rose to prominence when she was featured on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Rawlings has been with Welch since the beginning as the guitar slinger and vocal harmonizer who complements her singing, from the boot-stomping joy of “Red Clay Halo” to the silver-tinged ache of “Hard Times” to the slow hypnotic burn of “I Dream a Highway.” Although an accomplished acoustic picker in his own right—as well as a songwriter who has also worked with the likes of Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst, and Old Crow Medicine Show—Rawlings hadn’t traded on his own name until he released A Friend of a Friend in 2009 as Dave Rawlings Machine.

I recently had the pleasure of taking in a show by the Machine at the Brown Theatre in Louisville, Ky. The five-piece band was a delight and I’ve been humming songs like “Cumberland Gap” and “Good God, a Woman” in the days since. But something else was on display that evening that has lingered in my mind, making a deeper impression than even the music.

When a musician strikes out on their own after more than a decade of recording and touring with a particular group, this can signal a sense of discontent. Yet when Rawlings branched out, Gillian Welch came with him, taking no-name billing and singing harmonies for the band he now fronted. It was a total role reversal. It’s striking that he asked her to take a back seat. It’s striking that she did. It takes a lot of self-assurance to keep your higher-profile bandmate closely involved. It also takes a great deal of humility to step aside. Rawlings and Welch take this road less traveled. Ego shed for the sake of humility and generosity.

The show itself crystallized Rawlings’ generosity as a performer. First, consider the logistics of live folk music. The musicians on stage were armed with an array of vintage instruments that mostly predated electronic amplification. It’s almost sacrilege to drill holes in perfect craftsmanship and add magnetic guitar pickups to amplify their sound, yet you still need them to be loud enough to hear in a crowded theater. So every instrument had its own external microphone. This kind of setup requires a great deal of listening on the part of the players, as each leans into and out of their mic’s cardioid field to balance the sound of the band. With such fluid dynamics, deference occupies everyone’s mind.

The generosity I witnessed onstage reminded me of the love Paul writes about in Romans 12.

As the band leader, Rawlings doubled down on this generosity with several acts of surrender. Every musician in the band who had a record of their own got to take the lead and sing a song or two. The show ended with a Welch-led rendition of “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” sung acapella as all five musicians gathered around one microphone. For all his guitar chops and songwriting craft, Rawlings demonstrated that it is just as good to shine the spotlight as to stand in it. The evening was wonderful.

As a musician, I tend to leave a show wanting to practice my guitar. This time, though, I walked out of the theater with my wife and our friends most moved by the willful lifting up of others. I left wanting to practice generosity. Indeed, the generosity I witnessed onstage reminded me of the love Paul writes about in Romans 12. A sincere love, founded in Christ, that honors others above ourselves. A love that flows from the heart into the world as hospitality.

Hospitality requires us to make space, including the sonic space to listen. When we are in the same room together, we have a precious opportunity to let others be heard, but more so, to play along with the song they sing. Rejoicing with them if they rejoice. Weeping with them as they weep.

This isn’t always as easy as it sounds. We are not unlike musicians in that we are all playing a song and we all want to be heard. Living amidst the indelicacy of our social-media age, full of self-broadcasting opinion and personal politic at full volume, the noise we all make can generate an unbearable wall of sound that is, at heart, the sound of pride. In a sermon on Romans 12, Martyn Lloyd-Jones noted, “Without a single exception, the ultimate problem with every human being is the problem of the self, the problem of pride. And involved in pride, of course, is jealousy and envy.” When it comes to hearing others’ stories, “…the element of competition comes in.”

It takes an act of generosity, of giving, to silence our self in order to hear what’s going on with someone else. If we give away our jealousy and envy, the fruit of relational generosity will grow. Sharing in others’ sorrow may not erase their pain, but it will soften it. Celebrating others’ joy multiplies the delight of everyone involved. Imagine a community where this kind of empathy, this surrender of self for the sake of lifting up others, is the norm. Where love moves like a well-oiled machine. Imagine the health. Imagine the friendship. Imagine the hope. Imagine the music we could make in a world overwhelmed by noise. It might even become a song people want to join.

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure