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Dave Rawlings goes from sidekick to front man -- if a little reluctantly -- on his new album.


A FRIEND OF A FRIEND (Acony Records, $14) is perhaps the perfect title for Dave Rawlings’s first headlining project. For his entire career, Rawlings has never been “the guy” -- he’s always been standing next to that guy (or girl). He’s backed up Ryan Adams (he’s the one arguing with Adams about Morrissey at the beginning of 2000’s Heartbreaker) and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst. He’s also written with and produced for Old Crow Medicine Show. Even with his most prominent gig, he is the often-unnamed partner of Gillian Welch. Rawlings is, quite literally, a friend of a friend, only introduced to you by someone else you know better.

Not that he minds this, really. A Friend of a Friend was not born out of Rawlings’s need for attention -- far from it. He may be in the spotlight now, but he seems almost embarrassed by the attention. Even the name on the album’s spine, Dave Rawlings Machine, is a bit of cover for him to hide behind. It’s also the kind of name you pick when the need for having one sneaks up on you.

“I don’t know I was sure I wanted the record to happen until we were done with it,” Rawlings says, laughing. “I guess I had some desire to do it, but I wasn’t certain about it until we finally had a large-enough pile, where it stood on its own and was sort of a project.” Now, he says, “I’m thrilled that it happened and that it’s done -- and that I can no longer change my mind.”

Backed by a loose group that includes Welch, organ player Benmont Tench (a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), and Bright Eyes’ Nate Walcott, Rawlings indulges in a version of American roots music that is by turns earnest and eerie. It’s as though the Coen brothers wrote the Soggy Bottom Boys of O Brother, Where Art Thou? into No Country for Old Men.

While A Friend of a Friend is about Rawlings finally getting a chance to show his own stuff, that the track likely to get the most attention is his inspired melding of Bright Eyes’ “Method Acting” and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” is somewhat of an ironic testament to his usual role as a sideman. But it’s for good reason: The song is a desperate, desolate pairing that acts as a DNA test, proving that the two sampled tunes are long-lost fraternal twins.

“That happened spontaneously onstage one night,” Rawlings says. “The feels of those songs just sort of match. It dawned on me that if we shifted the chords [of ‘Method Acting’], we could go right into ‘Cortez.’ ” Still, when he entered the studio, he didn’t intend to recreate that moment of live-show alchemy. He had meant to do a straight cover of “Method Acting”; he recorded the medley version only once. “And that turned out to be the best take,” he says.

Rawlings covers another song on the disc, but even knowledgeable listeners would probably incorrectly guess which one it is. Is it “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)”? Nope. Though that was recorded by Adams and released on Heartbreaker, it was cowritten by Rawlings. He reclaims it here with a banjo-fueled reading that, thanks to his perfectly imperfect voice, better captures the conflicted narrator’s point of view, which is somewhere between apoplectic and apologetic. What about “I Hear Them All”? Again, no. While it was a hit for Old Crow Medicine Show on 2006’s Big Iron World, it, too, is a Rawlings cowrite. Rawlings declares ownership of that one as well, taking the song back to church with a pulpit-pounding version. The real cover is actually “The Monkey and the Engineer,” a country-blues number by the late Jesse Fuller.

Rawlings laughs when asked if the idea behind A Friend of a Friend was to prove that he could perform those songs better than his cowriters. Instead, he says the idea was that the songs weren’t finished. In fact, they never are. There is -- and always will be -- something else to try, another road to explore, and different connections to make, with the lyrics or the music or just the general mood. “You’re still looking for a fresh take,” he says. And that, most likely, is what will keep Rawlings coming back, whether to be in the spotlight or, perhaps more comfortably, in the shadow it casts.