For nearly two decades, Willie Watson has made modern folk music rooted in older traditions. He’s a folksinger in the classic sense: a singer, storyteller, and traveller, with a catalog of songs that bridge the gap between the past and present. On Folksinger Vol. 2, he acts as a modern interpreter of older songs, passing along his own version of the music that came long before him.
Southern gospel. Railroad songs. Delta blues. Irish fiddle tunes. Appalachian music. Folksinger Vol. 2 makes room for it all. Produced by David Rawlings, the album carries on a rich tradition in folk music: the sharing and swapping of old songs. Long ago, the 11 compositions that appear on Folksinger Vol. 2 were popularized by artists like Leadbelly, Reverend Gary Davis, Furry Lewis, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford. The songs don’t actually belong to those artists, though. They don’t belong to anyone. Instead, they’re part of the folk canon, passed from generation to generation by singers like Watson.
And what a singer he is. With a quick vibrato and rich range, he breathes new life into classic songs like “Samson and Delilah,” one of several songs featuring harmonies from gospel quartet The Fairfield Four. He’s a balladeer on “Gallows Pole,” whose melancholy melodies are echoed by the slow swells of a four-piece woodwind ensemble, and a bluesman on “When My Baby Left Me,” accompanying himself with sparse bursts of slide guitar. “Dry Bones” finds him crooning and hollering over a bouncing banjo, while “Take This Hammer” closes the album on a penitent note, with Watson singing to the heavens alongside a congregation of Sunday morning soul singers.
Arriving three years after Folksinger Vol. 1 — his first release since parting ways with the Old Crow Medicine Show, whose platinum-selling music helped jumpstart the 21st century folk revival — Vol. 2 expands Watson’s sound while consolidating his strengths. Several singers and sidemen make appearances here, including Gillian Welch, the Punch Brothers’ Paul Kowert, and Old Crow bandmate Morgan Jahnig. Even so, Watson has never sounded more commanding, more confident, more connected to the music that inspires him.
“I’m not trying to prove any point here,” he insists, “and I’m not trying to be a purist. There’s so much beauty in this old music, and it affects me on a deep level. It moves me and inspires me. I heard Leadbelly singing with the Golden Gate Quartet and it sounded fantastic, and I thought, ‘I want to do that.’ I heard the Grateful Dead doing their version of ‘On the Road Again,’ and it sounded like a dance party in 1926, and I wanted to do that, too. That’s the whole reason I ever played music in the first place — because it looked and sounded like it was going to be a lot of fun.”
Nodding to the past without resurrecting it, Willie Watson turns Folksinger Vol. 2 into something much more than an interpretation of older songs. The album carries on the spirit of a time nearly forgotten. It taps into the rich core of roots music. It furthers the legacy of American folk. And perhaps most importantly, it shows the full range of Willie Watson’s artistry, matching his instrumental and vocal chops with a strong appreciation for the songs that have shaped not only a genre, but an entire country.●
Looking like a man from leaner and meaner times, Willie Watson steps on stage with a quiet gravitas. But, when he opens his mouth and lets out that high lonesome vocal, you can hear him loud and clear.
His debut solo album, Folk Singer Vol. 1, was produced by David Rawlings at Woodland Sound Studios, the studio he co-owns with associate producer Gillian Welch in Nashville, TN, over the course of a pair of two-day sessions, for their own Acony Records label. The album spans ten songs from the American folk songbook ranging from standards like “Midnight Special,” “Mexican Cowboy” and Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blues” to the more obscure, like Memphis Slim’s 12-bar blues, “Mother Earth,” Gus Cannon and the Jug Stompers’ “Bring it With You When You Come,” Land Norris’ double-entendre kids chant, “Kitty Puss” and St. Louis bluesman Charley Jordan’s sing-song “Keep It Clean.” Like the music, Willie can be murderous, bawdy or lustful, sometimes in the course of a single song, with a sly sense of humor that cuts to the quick. He counters a masterful bravado with the tragic fragility of one who has been wounded.
“There’s a lot of weight in the way Willie performs,” says Rawlings, longtime friend and producer of Watson’s previous band, Old Crow Medicine Show. “He’s had some tragedy in his life, which has informed his art. There’s an emotional edge to what he does because of who he is as a human being. He’s the only one of his generation I listen to who can make me forget these songs were ever sung before.”
Born in Watkins Glen, N.Y.—best-known for its race track and the rock festival of the same name which took place there, featuring the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead and The Band—Watson grew up listening to his father’s basement record collection, including Bob Dylan and Neil Young, before stumbling on a Leadbelly album at the age of 12. Combined with having heard plenty of local string bands—featuring old-time banjo and fiddle—Willie experienced an epiphany.
“As soon as I heard that record,” he recalls, “I was hooked.”
With a voice that could quaver in the operatic style of his favorite, Roy Orbison, Willie went on to discover North Carolina Appalachian fiddle and banjo players Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, who played songs like “Cripple Creek,” “Sugar Hill” and “John Brown’s Dream” on a compilation cassette of “round peak style” music. He began to unearth Folkways albums, including the label’s groundbreaking 1952 Harry Smith compilation, Anthology of American Folk Music, which helped kick-start the ‘60s folk revival lovingly captured in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. He discovered like-minded souls in Old Crow Medicine Show.
“When we started that band, I found people that were cut from the same musical cloth,” he says. “They were my age, into the same thing, going down a similar road. We started sharing our influences, trading records and playing together.”
A few years down that road, Watson’s work with Old Crow is already a large part of the reason that banjo and guitar driven music is heard everywhere in the air these days. On Folk Singer, we find Willie defending his musical turf. A true solo album in every sense, Watson is now center-stage, armed with an acoustic guitar, banjo and the occasional mouth harp. Indeed, hearing Watson’s skillful and subtle banjo and guitar accompaniments and soaring vocals unadorned for the first time is a revelation.
“Part of me always toyed with this idea of going it alone,” he explains. “I had to relearn some things, how to fill out all that space.”
Watson takes the skeletons of these songs and breathes his own life into them, on stage and on record.
“Midnight Special” is a standard that has been covered by everyone from Big Bill Broonzy to Creedence Clearwater Revival, the ultimate train song.
“Leadbelly’s version was my inspiration. I didn’t even know Creedence did it.”
“Long John Dean” is a banjo song alternatively known as “Long John Green” (by Grand Ole Opry star Uncle Dave Macon) and “Lost John” (Dick Burnett and Leonard Rutherford) with elements of “From Bowling Green,” a ‘20s WC Handy vaudeville number.
“I learned that from Bascom Lamar Lunsford. I’ve heard a couple other versions, including one from ‘Little Hat’ Jones, a blues guitar player. It had different verses, a slightly different melody and arrangement. I love the great rhyme at the end over that crooked tune.”
“Stewball” is a folk song about a supposedly real-life 18th century Irish race horse that ran in England, alternatively known as Skewball, a folk song that has been covered by the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary and The Hollies. “Mother Earth” is a slow, grinding 12-bar blues recorded by Memphis Slim in 1951 about the inevitability of death (“Mother earth may be waiting for you/But there’s a debt you got to pay.”)
“Memphis Slim is playing piano on this one with Willie Dixon on bass. It’s just that slow-drag blues. There’s this little piano line in between the verses that I transferred to guitar.”
“Mexican Cowboy” has been covered by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston and Bob Dylan, among many others, under a variety of names, including “The Hills of Mexico,” “Boggus Creek” and “The Buffalo Skinners,” about a group of cowboys hired at the now abandoned Fort Griffith, Texas, to work cattle in New Mexico.
“I got that from Roscoe Holcomb, it’s one of those true ‘high lonesome’ sounds. Those minor chords in there are real intriguing.”
“James Alley Blues” was recorded by the New Orleans-born Richard “Rabbit” Brown and included on Harry Smith’s Anthology, where Willie first heard it. It’s a dark-laced song with a humorous chorus that talks about women troubles in no uncertain terms. (“How do you want me to love you/If you keep treating me so mean?”)
“I love singing that blues. It’s blues therapy at its best.”
“Rock Salt and Nails” is a song written by Utah Phillips, though he has denied it because of its rather dour attitude towards women. Dave Rawlings, who remembered hearing it from Dave Van Ronk, played it for Willie years ago, when he and Gillian Welch were on tour with Old Crow. It has been covered by the likes of Flatt and Scruggs, Joan Baez and Waylon Jennings.
“I got the whole song in one listen. I’ve been singing it for quite a while at night when I’m home alone. The first half will get you crying, but by the end, you’re laughing.”
“Bring it With You When You Come” was composed by Gus Cannon for his Jug Stompers in 1930. The jug band standard has been covered by both David Bromberg and the Siegel-Schwall Band, among others. “Kitty Puss” was a song by Land Norris, a banjo player from Georgia who made records in the early ‘20s before electric microphones.
“Norris did a lot of children’s songs with silly, nonsense lyrics that could be read many ways. This one seems to be about a cat who’s going to die because his tail’s on fire in the basement.”
“Keep It Clean” is a song written by St. Louis blues singer Charley Jordan, who worked extensively with big Joe Williams in the early to mid-‘30s, discovered by Willie on Maryland record collector Joe Bussard’s Down in the Basement compilation CD. A video of Watson performing the song in the Pointer Brand overall factory at the recent Bristol Rhythm and Roots was webcast by Live and Breathing.
“It sounds like it could be dirty, but then the chorus comes along and you’re singing about Coca-Cola.”
According to Watson, making the album “happened naturally… as soon as I was playing solo, I started remembering all these old tunes which led me to dig through my 78’s for more. When we got in the studio, I just played everything a couple times. It reminded me of making OCMS, where a lot of times we’d just play songs and let Dave sort it out.”
It is worth mentioning that the songs selected for this volume are not easy reads, not a simple matter to put across. These timelessly natural performances create a classic album that bears the invisible thumbprint of a master craftsman.
One pundit called Watson “Bob Dylan without the nasal whine or pretension,” but Willie is a lot more humble than that.
“I try to take songs I can relate to and that I can sing with urgency, that I can feel,” he says. “I’m just happy if people dig it.”