I remember the first time I saw Willie Watson perform back in 2011 at the Brooklyn Arts Center with Old Crow Medicine Show. His animated face and lively guitar picking matched his energetic, fast-paced vocals. Watson’s singing voice offered an antique sound of sorts—a traditional high-pitched raspy kick to the pants often found in traditional folk and bluegrass.
He found his voice and calling early in life, too. As a kid Watson always was singing around his house. Born at the tail end of the ‘70s, and growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Watson listened to what was on the radio, from Michael Jackson to Nirvana, mixed in with his dad’s taste in records (the Stones, Neil Young), too.
“When I picked up the guitar and started learning songs, I realized I could sing the same stuff as people on the records,” he recounts. “I was just exposed to all kinds of stuff and . . . it could have been anything, and I would still be playing music because I could sing like anybody or anything I wanted to. I guess I still can, but I still steer my voice and sound in a certain direction. . . . That’s why I feel so fortunate—a lot of people don’t have that, and I never take it for granted. I found a direction in life at a very young age.”
He dropped out of high school to pursue his path in music, which eventually led him to cofound Old Crow Medicine Show. He moved away from the band soon after Wilmington’s BAC show in 2011. Since, he has produced two solo records and will return to ILM’s Bourgie Nights on Thursday.
Watson tapped singer-songwriter Dave Rawlings (whose touring partner is Gillian Welch) to help produce his latest LP, “Folksinger Vol. 2” (September 2017). Watson has known Rawlings for years since meeting in Nashville. Rawlings also produced Old Crow’s first two records “O.C.M.S.” (2004) and “Big Iron World” (2006). When Watson decided to make a transition as a solo artist, he didn’t necessarily know what he wanted to do. Rawlings was a much-needed source of reassurance and encouragement at the time.
“Me and Dave are on the same page and we like the same stuff,” Watson adds. “So our interests and tastes and opinions and ideals and standards all kind of match up. Then, at the same time, you put someone in that producer position, you want someone who’s going to have more insight than you. He’s going to come up with ideas I’m just not going to come up with because he’s really good at what he does.”
For the most part, “Folksinger Vol. 2” would not be the same without Rawlings’ touch. Filled with reimagined folksongs, from popular to more obscure, some wouldn’t even be on the record had it not been for Rawlings. “John Henry”—a tune seemingly covered by just about everyone, from Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen—wasn’t considered until Rawlings pushed to give Pete Seeger’s version (with a fiery banjo and vocal tone reminiscent of Watson’s) a listen. While they also discussed the possibility of having other people come in to play on “Vol. 2,” they didn’t pull the trigger until they finished recording most tracks.
“Just going back through the stuff and realizing it’s not doing the stuff you want it to,” Watson observes, “songs like ‘Take This Hammer,’ [which] I tried to record many times over the years and it just never worked. It’s great at the shows, it’s great live, but you just take me and my guitar in the studio and it just doesn’t have the same thing. . . . The crowd, the bar, the scene, the energy in that room makes that song exciting.”
Since the studio is a different beast, with a different atmosphere, energy and vibe altogether, Watson could sing a song live indefinitely and never cut it on a record if he can’t find a way to make it work. Therefore, he brought on double bassist Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers) for “Take This Hammer.” Not to mention, there were other guest appearances from Fairfield Four, Morgan Jahnig and Gillian Welch.
While Watson loves the craft of this style of music, it’s clear in his tone (perhaps, a touch exasperated), he is not in love with the industry itself. It’s a journey which ebbs and flows, and Watson admits his had its extreme ups and downs. Backing off in a sense and gaining perspective on his work outside of himself has been the greatest lesson learned. As well, he takes praise with a grain of salt.
“It’s good to just remain human, and remain humble and grateful for what you have,” he says—“not trying too hard, remembering what it was like when you were hungry, and you had all this energy and things to say; you had some shit you wanted to tell everybody. Over time, that can start to dwindle down, and you start thinking about your art more and think you’re important because everyone’s tellin’ you you’re important. Then you gotta do the next big thing, and make your next record different and prove to everybody you can ‘move forward.’ So you’ve got to stay young and hungry—even though you might be old and bitter, or big-headed. It took me a while to have perspective on [leaving Old Crow], but I certainly thought I was important, and I was certainly trying to do the next important thing, and I was pretty wrapped up in it. . . . But I’m so glad I am where I am now.”
Though the industry itself may be tiresome, “Folk Singer Vol. 1” (2014) and “Folksinger Vol. 2” help return Watson to his original love: getting out and playing for people. He started out simply learning a song to sing to others, whether for family or neighborhood friends down the street.
“That’s never going to change for me,” he notes, “and that’s what the whole concert experience can be for me: a really unifying and communal experience.”