Willie Watson recorded his debut solo effort, the straightforwardly-titled Folk Singer Vol. 1, over the course of two days at Woodland Sound Studios, the studio owned by Gillian Welch in Nashville, TN. In those sessions, he played whichever songs came to mind: the collection features some well-known numbers like “Midnight Special,” along with rarer inclusions such as “Kitty Puss” and “Mexican Cowboy.” The track list has sprawling origins, spanning blues, folk, and rock and roll as well as decades. Collaged together by producer David Rawlings, Folk Singer ambles through its ten tracks with the lowlight unadornedness of a late-night impromptu performance.
And in a way, it is. When Watson split from Old Crow Medicine Show, which he’d co-founded and been part of for a decade and a half, he wasn’t sure where he would end up next. Though he didn’t start out with the goal of making a record of traditional songs, it does seem like kind of a neat return to basics: after a long run with a band that helped define contemporary folk music, Watson’s solo career so far has been an opportunity to revel in the old songs that made him love old-time folk music in the first place.
A couple weeks ago, I got a chance to chat with Watson about his new album, the traditional songs on it, and how he came to love old-time music. Read on for more:
AF: What made you decide to put out a solo album after you left Old Crow, as opposed to forming another band?
WW: You know, it just sort of happened that way. I’ve been singing old songs–folk songs, traditional songs, whatever you wanna call them–for years. Once I was on my own, I wasn’t sure what my next move was–if I was going to have another band, or try to write a bunch of songs. At first, I did start writing songs, but I don’t think I was satisfied with what I was writing. I was starting to do some solo shows, and I had a few songs I’d written, and I would do a mix of those with old traditional songs, at those early shows. I was a lot happier doing those old folk songs, and I think the crowd was a lot happier, too. I thought those were great songs that people should be hearing, and that I wanted to be singing.
AF: You’re in a position to introduce listeners to those old songs for the first time, in many cases. How cool is that?
WW: Totally cool, and I’m happy if I can be that guy. Alternately, if they heard where they came from, they might not want to listen to me anymore. I would much rather put on Leadbelly singing “Midnight Special” than listen to me. It’s surprising, a lot of people might not even realize that these are old songs. I think if they have the record, Folk Singer, and they read the reviews and write-ups, they’ll get it–but I’ve played shows and had people think I wrote all those songs.
AF: You grew up in upstate New York, right? What was the musical community like there?
WW: Around Ithaca and Tompkins County–which is right next to Schuyler County, where I’m from–there’s a lot of old-time fiddle music. There was a banjo player named Richie Stearns and all those guys from Donna The Buffalo, they’re old-time players. There would be a weekly old-time jam every week up there. So I was exposed to that first hand, being around the scene and the music every week. Richie Stearns had a band called The Horse Flies, and they were a mix of old-time fiddle music with eighties pop. They had a drum set and they all plugged in, and Richie Stearns was playing clawhammer banjo. Judy Hyman played the fiddle and would dance around the stage, doing this headbang-y thing with her eyes rolling back in her head. I was about thirteen, and I would see this stuff and thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. It was dance music, and it really moved me in a big way. That was my introduction to old-time music. I knew it wasn’t bluegrass, this old-timey thing The Horse Flies were doing. It was something a little bit different, and it really stood out. I was already listening to Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Of course, at the same time I was also listening to Nirvana, too. They did that Unplugged thing, where he sings the Leadbelly song