by Jane Roser
I love old-timey music. My grandma used to play “Dixie” on her prized Hohner harmonica after dinner in Warner Robbins, Georgia. Growing up in Virginia, I was exposed early on to the Carter Family’s songbook and had to take square dancing as part of P.E. class, so Willie Watson’s debut album, Folk Singer Vol. 1, is a lovely trip down the dusty dirt roads of a bygone era. Featuring ten songs ranging from folk standards to obscure treasures, this record feels as if it should be played on a phonograph in front of a wood-burning fire while Papa is out hunting rabbits and Ma is canning peaches for winter. It’s authentic, cozy and down right heart-stopping. You could sum it up in three words, which also happen to be the tag line from the classic Western film High Noon: Simple. Powerful. Unforgettable.
“This is the music that I really love,” says Watson, “it strikes a chord in me like nothing else.”
Released May 6th on Acony Records, Folk Singer Vol. 1 was recorded and produced over the course of two days by the legendary David Rawlings (he produced albums for Watson’s previous band, Old Crow Medicine Show) at Woodland Sound Studios in Nashville, which Rawlings co-owns with singer-songwriter Gillian Welch.
“We recorded everything we could think of,” recalls Watson, “everything I was playing at shows and also trying to come up with new old songs for me to record. I sang the ones we chose and then Dave sorted it out later, as far as what was going on the record. I just let him do his thing, I really trust Dave. We know how each other works and I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Watson was heavily influenced by the old-time music scene in the New York town he grew up in; bands such as The Horse Flies and listening to old Leadbelly albums prompted him to pick up a guitar, and later the banjo.
“When I first picked up a guitar, I thought I’d just start shredding and blow everybody away,” Watson laughs, “but I couldn’t shred like Hendrix right away, so I started singing and it took off from there.”
Watson was an original founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show and his work with them is a huge reason that banjo and fiddle driven music has become increasingly more mainstream, netting fans from all over the world.
“I collaborated on a lot of songs with them,” says Watson, “I’m kind of a songwriter; most people think I’m a songwriter first and foremost, but I’m not in the way that Gillian Welch or Ketch [Secor] or Bob Dylan are. I still get inspired to write, but don’t always finish what I start. With Old Crow it was a collaborative effort, so I’d be able to start a song-a verse or a chorus-and not be able to take it any further because I’d get frustrated or distracted, but as far as me writing songs at home and being a songwriter…I’m just not that guy.”
The tracks selected for Folk Singer Vol. 1 are timeless and showcase folk standards such as the traditional train song “Midnight Special” which is thought to have originated among prisoners in the American South. Leadbelly recorded a version for John and Alan Lomax at Angola Prison in 1934 and it’s since been covered by everyone from Pete Seeger to Creedence Clearwater Revival. “Rock Salt and Nails” stands out for its rather harsh lyrics. It was written by Utah Phillips, although I read that he denied authorship because of its sour attitude towards women. Rawlings played it for Watson several years ago when he and Gillian Welch were on tour with Old Crow Medicine Show and it’s been recorded by Joan Baez and Waylon Jennings, among others.
And, yes, before you ask, there will be a Vol. 2 on the horizon at some point.
“People seem to want it already,” Watson chuckles, “but, you know, with that kind of title, I think it just goes without saying [that there will be a follow-up].”
Watson just wrapped up dates with Shovels & Rope following his tour with the Dave Rawlings Machine and is currently on his first leg of the new year, performing on the East coast before starting his first ever headlining West coast tour. Watson is looking forward to his show at Boot & Saddle January 7th, noting that his concerts can be a little bit rough and tough and a little down and out, so he likes it when folks let loose and have a good time. “Philly,” Watson proclaims, “man, one of my favorite towns.” Watson will also be opening for Steve Earle at City Winery in New York, which along with his headlining shows in Nazareth and Boston are completely sold out.
“It’s pretty cool,” says Watson, “it’s been a bit of a winding, long road to get here but it feels great to continue moving forward.”