By now, no one is going to argue Willie Watson’s self-appointed status as “folksinger.”
Roughly two decades ago, he helped pilot a renewed interest in pre-bluegrass string music with the formation of Old Crow Medicine Show. He remained a member until 2011, when a combination of the band’s evolving Americana sound and his loyalty to more traditionally-hued music pulled him toward a solo career.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
But even before his Old Crow tenure ended, Watson had entered another band life. He maintained an alliance with folk impresario Dave Rawlings, who produced the two Old Crow records that cemented the band’s popularity among predominantly college-aged audiences (2004’s “O.C.M.S” and 2006’s “Big Iron World”), as guitarist and banjo player for the Dave Rawlings Machine. The partnership continues to this day. Watson performed with the latter band as recently as August in Louisville.
But Watson’s true devotion to roots music surfaces on his two solo records, both devoted to stylistically faithful covers of vintage folk, blues and country tunes. The first, 2014’s “Folksinger, Vol. 1,” has Watson performing classic works by Leadbelly, Utah Phillips and Roscoe Holcomb, along with a variety of traditional tunes. Watson toured the record and its repertoire extensively for the following three years. Those journeys brought him to Central Kentucky numerous times for performances at the “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour,” the now defunct Natasha’s Bistro and a double bill show with Aoife O’Donovan at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.
In September came a follow-up, the ingeniously titled “Folksinger, Vol. 2,” that mined the roots music caverns further but also beefed up the sound from the predominantly solo setting of “Vol. 1” to more ensemble-based romps featuring folk empress Gillian Welch and Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert (both fellow members of the Dave Rawlings Machine).
But the most satisfying collaborations on “Vol. 2” come from four songs featuring the veteran gospel vocal group The Fairfield Four. Watson was taken enough by Leadbelly recordings where the fabled folk-blues colossus was backed by the Golden Gate Quartet to try his own version of the configuration. Of the four, the album-closing version of “Take This Hammer” — a song cut by countless artists and field workers since the late 19th century, perhaps most notably by Leadbelly in 1943 — lets Watson’s high tenor lead and sparse guitar accompaniment mingle lightly with the sterling Fairfield vocals offered singularly and with subtle group bravado.
Watson will go it alone tonight at The Burl, bringing the music of “Vol. 1” and “Vol. 2” together for a full “Folksinger” portrait.