This is a modern folk album that wears its old-school influences on its sleeve. Like Bob Dylan’s early work, Poor David’s Almanack looks to archetypal songs of the American roots-music catalog for inspiration, using them as launching points for a wildly original tracklist. The high-lonesome harmonies and acoustic fretwork of “Midnight Train” jumpstart the album on an earthy note, while “Airplane” — a southern ballad featuring a string section arranged by Rawlings himself — reaches skyward. Rawlings even evokes the call-and-response format of old field songs during the chorus of “Good God a Woman,” then serenades a lover with the fiddle-fueled, countryfied “Come Over My House.” Throughout its 10-song tracklist, Poor David’s Almanack sounds both fresh and familiar, offering new music rooted in the tradition, texture and twang of the folk songbook.
“This is new territory for me, with songs that stick much closer to classic folk melodies and classic folk structures,” he explains. “Before, if I’d wanted to sing a song like ‘Midnight Train,’ I would’ve covered a traditional song that already exists. This is the first time I looked at myself and thought, ‘Wait, if I want to play music like that, I should make it myself,’ because I love that kind of music and I want to be a creator of it. I want to try and inject some of myself into that folk bloodstream.”
A leader of the contemporary folk revival, Rawlings began releasing albums with Gillian Welch in the mid-’90s, championing a more acoustic-based sound during the heyday of grunge. For more than two decades since, he has juggled multiple roles as a frontman, duo partner, sideman and behind-the-scenes producer. His vocals can be heard on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, whose multi-platinum sales and widespread popularity helped introduce old-time folk music to a 21st century audience, and his unique approach to the acoustic guitar has influenced a new generation of forward-thinking folkies, several of whom — including Dawes and Old Crow Medicine Show — have hired Rawlings to produce their own albums. Dawes’ Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith both make appearances on Poor David’s Almanack, as do multiple members of Old Crow’s past and present lineups, including Ketch Secor and Willie Watson. On an album filled with some of the brightest lights in Americana music, though, Rawlings’ star shines the strongest, whether he’s singing in a mercurial voice or leading his band through an instrumental section worthy of a front-porch picking party.
Half of Poor David’s Almanack was written alone — a first for Rawlings, who typically co-writes with Gillian Welch — and songs like “Money is the Meat in the Coconut” have already become staples of his live show, tossed into his setlist days after they were completed. Later, while recording the album to analog tape at Woodland Studios in East Nashville, Rawlings experimented with overdubs and other layered effects. Assisting him were a pair of top-shelf engineers: longtime collaborator Matt Andrews and legendary studio hand Ken Scott, whose work can be heard on landmark albums by the Beatles, David Bowie, and Elton John.
Influenced by new experiences, old sounds and classic books (including Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, whose title serves as the basis for Rawlings’ own album), Poor David’s Almanack nods to its source material without borrowing. It’s a nod to the past and a step toward the future. “Cumberland Gap,” with its electric guitar solos and coed harmonies, even evokes the California folk-rock of Fleetwood Mac, pushing Rawlings into ever-evolving territory.
“That’s the beautiful thing about this kind of music,” he says. “It’s supposed to be a chain. Maybe it’s supposed to be a chain that looks like a circle. We’re all looking for our best way to contribute to the great musical landscape. We’re all trying to raise some little part of that building.”