by Jewly Hight
Willie Watson may have taken on the role with his debut solo album, Folk Singer Vol. 1 — the results of his laying down old song after old song after old song at Woodland Studios, with Dave Rawlings behind the boards, for Rawlings and Gillian Welch’s indie label Acony Records — but he’s rewriting the storyline, ready to deliver a stout, standalone performance whenever he’s offered a stage. That’s a surefire way to keep an audience plugged in when you’re giving ‘em unplugged, antique tunes.
Nowadays, except when Watson’s out with the Dave Rawlings Machine or John C. Reilly’s traveling folk troupe, it’s all him — his picking and plucking, his distinctively acute vibrato — and the revival repertoire of blues, bawdy tunes and ballads he’s assembled. It wasn’t welcome news when Watson and his longtime comrades in Old Crow Medicine Show parted ways a few years back, so it’s good to hear that his solo album, and the one OCMS has on the way, capture performers clear on how they want to carry out their respective old-timey visions, and relishing getting on with it.
Watson's Folk Singer Vol. 1 is due out tomorrow, May 6. He'll play a release show May 6 at Grimey's, Music City Roots May 7 at Loveless, and another show May 8 at The Station Inn. Head after the jump to see our chat.
I never realized that you were such a good country-blues singer until I listened to your version of “Mother Earth” on here.
I love that old blues stuff. You know, I take a lot of influence from those kinds of singers. I think I’ve sort of developed it a little bit more over the years. But I mean, it all comes from that — like, jug band music, the old Memphis and Cincinnati jug band scene and the old blues singers. And I love Leadbelly. Leadbelly’s always been one of my favorites.
I read that you had that same sort of revelatory moment that a lot of your rootsy peers have described — hearing Nirvana cover Leadbelly and heading off down the old-timey road. But your high, cutting vocal attack is so different from the alternative and indie rock you would’ve been surrounded by as a kid, and I’ve always wondered how you developed your vocal thing.
My very first vocal influence, ever, would’ve been Roy Orbison. ... That’s when I was, like, 9. My dad was a big fan and stuff. [Orbison] had that big comeback with that song “You Got It” and the Traveling Wilburys. So he was sort of on my radar then.
Down the road, I was listening to that alternative scene — the Pixies, They Might Be Giants, stuff like that. Of course, Nirvana came along and kind of tied it all together. But at the same time, you’ve got to understand, I was really into Neil Young. ... I felt like I was a little bit ahead of the curve when Nirvana came out, like, “Oh yeah, I know about this stuff. I like Neil Young.” Neil sings really high. So I would be sitting up in my room singing Neil Young songs in sort of that higher register.
So it sort of started there. And then when I eventually started listening to old-time music and mountain music, Appalachian fiddle and banjo, I found that singing up there, that high lonesome sound, sort of put a little more volume behind it.
In many cases, you learned the songs on Folk Singer from earlier sources rather than '50s and '60s-era revival sources. Do you consider yourself a record collector? What does it take to track down 78s these days?
As far as my 78 collection, it’s not that extensive compared to what a lot of people have out there. There’s guys out there like Frank Fairfield. ... All four walls of his living room are just stacked to the ceiling with 78s. It’s kinda all he does, you know? I have a small collection of 78s. But I mean, it takes some time, and a lot of money.
... When you do as much traveling as I do, you hit up all the antique stores and the junk shops. A lot of times people don’t necessarily know what they have. And then the collectors — you know, you can buy stuff from other people. I mean, these days with eBay and the Internet, it’s all kinda on there — which is not nearly as fun. ... I mean, back in the day, you could go to estate sales and find a gold mine, 78s that people have had and put away when radio came out.
You got “Keep It Clean” from a compilation put out by record collector Joe Bussard. A recent New York Times Mag feature talked about recordings and field interviews he’s amassed, and about how some of it’s been shared with the world and some will forever be lost to history. How has the accessibility of recordings and information shaped your relationship with this music?
… I can imagine previous generations, like in the '60s and '70s, people that were into this music might go and see these [performers]. They really were, like, tangible and real. You could sit next to Mississippi John Hurt at Newport Folk Festival, and talk to him and shake his hand and watch him. For me, it’s like they didn’t even exist. It’s like they’re comic book characters or superheroes, you know? They might as well be Superman.
You were in a pretty interesting position at the Town Hall show staged by T Bone Burnett in conjunction with Inside Llewyn Davis. That night, you were a participant in a current folk revival, promoting a movie that celebrates a previous generation’s folk revival, with material from further back. What was that like for you?
You hit the nail right on the head with the whole layering thing. Here’s this generation that’s sort of paying tribute to or emulating a generation that was getting it from the previous generation, or two generations back. Well, first of all, it was great to be a part of that whole thing. Being there with Gillian [Welch] and Dave [Rawlings] was real nice. It’s fun to play with those guys. I’m always sort of honored to be around them and real thankful that they’re part of what I do. ... There I am with Joan Baez, and she’s, like, queen of folk of the ‘60s era, [so it was] a real folk concert like they would have done. ... You wouldn’t expect that that would happen these days, but there we were.
You took an off-the-cuff approach to making this album with Dave Rawlings. What felt right about doing it that way?
It’s just sorta how it happened. Everything came together at the right place and the right time. When I first split from Old Crow, I wasn’t sure what I was gonna be, what I was gonna do. Was I gonna start a band? Was I gonna write songs? At first, I did. I tried to write songs, you know? There was all this pressure.
You talked in another interview about feeling the pressure to be a solo singer-songwriter, which is kind of a strange thing to hear a musician say. Usually when musicians go solo, they’re all about the chance to do their own songs their own way.
I mean, I think it’s a little backwards from what most people would think. ... People expect you to be a singer-songwriter. It’s like you have to write your own material. I do write, and I always did write. I’ve written a lot of songs. With Old Crow it was a real collaborative thing. We would write together. I would start a song and take it to one of the guys and work on it together. A lot of times I would just sort of try to make their songs better.
... So when I was on my own, I sat down and tried to write, and it was really frustrating. I didn’t like what I was writing. I wasn’t very practiced at just sitting down and completing songs on my own. I’m just a different kind of musician than that.
... [In Elvis’ day] those guys didn’t write songs. But it was fine. You didn’t care. You weren’t concerned with who wrote the song. You just liked the song. You liked how it started, and you liked the way the performer performed it, and you liked the way they looked. That has been lost in our vein, in the Americana world, or whatever we’re supposed to call it. ... That’s baffling to me, that in a world of roots music, a world based on traditional stuff, everybody’s got to be original. If you’re not, then people kinda turn their nose up at you. They’ll say, “I love that song! That was so beautiful! Did you write it?” I’ll say, “No.” They’re like, “Really?” And then they get disappointed and walk away. “Well, you liked it until I told ya I didn’t write it.”
I just found that I was happier singing these old songs, and it was more fun. And at the shows, they were going over a lot better than the stuff I was trying to write. It was just like, “The pressure’s off. …Let’s just go into the studio and sing these old songs.”
I understand that there are limitations on how much you can talk about this, but what are you able to you tell me about leaving Old Crow?
It was just time to go. It was time to move on. We had grown apart. ... You know, I had a baby. I had a 1-year-old girl. Life was changing. They were changing. I was changing. There’s just some stuff that wasn’t working anymore. ... I’m sort of sick of saying that, because I say it all the time. Sort of my little stock answer, you know?
From an outside perspective, it looks like you wanted to do a smaller scale thing as a performer, a more intimate show.
It’s not so much the size of the shows. I’d love to be playing to big crowds. It’s not necessarily about the size of the crowd or the fan base or anything. It’s just more about the actual music and the way the music sounded, and what it was sort of moving towards. I just wanted to keep things a little bit more, um, pure and a little bit more down-to-earth and more rootsy. I wanted to make the music in a very — what’s the right word? I didn’t want to play to click tracks in the studio. I didn’t want to layer everything. I want to play the music live.
I read that you somehow wound up doing a solo set on a music cruise because Sean Watkins volunteered you. Was that your first real solo show?
It was not too long after I split with the band. I moved right out to LA right after the split — moved back. I’d been living out here for a number of years, then moved to Nashville and then split, and I just immediately came back to LA. So I’m hanging out with [siblings] Sean and Sara [Watkins] again, and they have been such good friends and so supportive. ... They knew I might have needed a little pick-me-up. So they just invited me to come out on this cruise, a Cayamo cruise. It was a singer-songwriter, folk, rootsy festival on a ship around the Bahamas. They said, “We have an extra cabin. Just come on out and take a little trip. Sit in with us on a few songs, but just come on out and hang out.” I was like, “Yeah! That sounds amazing.” So I got on [and looked at the schedule], and there my name was. I had a little solo spot. And I was like, “What the?” Sean took the liberty to play booking agent for me.
... I was the only one in [Old Crow] that lived out here, and Sean and Sara would do this little revue called the Watkins Family Hour at Largo. I would go pretty often and I would sing a few songs. …And they’d be like, “Oh Willie, you’re so good on your own. You should make a solo record sometime.” And I was always saying, “No way. I couldn’t do that. I’m not a solo guy. I’m a band guy. I could never be solo.” …They were more confident in me than I was about the whole solo thing.