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. Willie is the only one of his generation 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. 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. Timeless and natural, these performances create an album that bears the invisible thumbprint of a master craftsman.
Pundits have compared Watson to giants like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, 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.”