The title of Dave Rawlings’ third album, “Poor David’s Almanack,” suggests a sense of antiquity, from the old world title down to the mesh of agricultural, religious and industrial wood carving-style images used as cover art. To a degree, what unfolds during the record’s 10 original tunes (half written by Rawlings, the remainder co-penned with longtime partner Gillian Welch) revels in ancient Americana. But surprises balance expectations to make “Poor David’s Almanack” the most realized and inviting of Rawlings’ three albums.
To begin with, his two previous records — 2009’s “A Friend of a Friend” and 2015’s “Nashville Obsolete” — were both credited to the Dave Rawlings Machine, the modern-day but retro-sounding string group he has fronted, with Welch as a mainstay member, over the past decade. The formal solo billing here of David Rawlings is perhaps misleading, as all of the current Machine lineup (rounded by guitarist Willie Watson, fiddler Brittany Haas and bassist Paul Kowert) fleshes out the majority of “Poor David’s Almanack.” But so do members of Old Crow Medicine Show (Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua, both longstanding Rawlings accomplices) and Dawes (co-founding siblings Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith). That means the album goes full blown hootenanny at times.
But the key contributor remains Welch. She is as vital to the sound and overall feel of “Poor David’s Almanack” as Rawlings was to her last three albums, from a production standpoint. That explains why some of the keenest moments on the new record come when the two summon an ultra-casual but richly authentic folk command.
The album-opening “Midnight Train” begins with instantly infectious melodic fancy that sounds likes a less hippie-esque version of early Arlo Guthrie (especially in Rawlings’ high, quietly jubilant singing). The tune quickly gains momentum as Haas, Watson, Kowert and drummer Billy Thomas kick in.
Similarly, the slow-poke country-folk harmonies within “Yup” outline the story of an old woman dragged to hell by the devil but quickly returned to the mortal world after her own beastly behavior proves too much for the other inhabitants.
There are a few instances in which the ensemble sound is heightened and the resulting music toughens somewhat, as on “Cumberland Gap,” when a centuries-old journey to our neck of the woods (“Kentucky, she is waiting on the other side”) becomes as treacherous as a trip to the Arctic Circle (just swap out polar bears for Cherokee tribes). “Guitar Man,” however, goes electric with a patient, humid propulsion that falls between The Band and 1970s-era Neil Young.
The simple, effortless folk mood of “Poor David’s Almanack” is summed up best on “Airplane,” another Arlo-esque tune of escapism sung by Rawlings with bittersweet grace and subtle orchestration. The Machine might be at work, but the music it produced is anything but mechanical.