Music News & Reviews

Everyone loves Willie Watson's music, except Willie Watson

Over the past year, Willie Watson has  established himself as a solo artist after  departing from Old Crow Medicine Show.
Over the past year, Willie Watson has established himself as a solo artist after departing from Old Crow Medicine Show.

A year ago, Willie Watson embarked on his most extensive solo tour since breaking ranks with Old Crow Medicine Show.

His mission? To establish himself as an artist apart from his famed former band, with vintage folk songs penned or previously interpreted by the likes of Leadbelly, Utah Phillips and Roscoe Holcomb. He fashioned 10 such unaccompanied tunes on a Dave Rawlings-produced solo album, Folk Singer, Vol. 1.

So as another summer commences, how well has the guitarist/banjoist's mission gone?

"I think the record worked," Watson says. "The plan sort of worked. We just wanted to get me out there doing what I could do best. I just sing these songs. It's such a simple sort of idea, but I think people have embraced it in the past year.

"There are much more spectacular concerts than what I do, but it's having an impact on people. I appreciate that, for sure. A lot of people keep coming to the shows, so I keep doing it."

And Folk Singer, Vol. 1? Does the record still stand up for him?

"I put it on the other day for my daughter and I hated it," Watson said. "Couldn't bear it."

Before you assume that Watson is a complete defeatist, know he has felt the same way about every recorded work he has been involved with, starting with the banjo- and fiddle-driven albums he cut with Old Crow Medicine Show between 1998 and 2012.

"It's been that way with everything I've ever done," Watson says. "I put on those Old Crow records now, and I can't believe I was singing like that. I'm just very critical of myself. But, ultimately, what I think of the music is irrelevant. It doesn't matter. If that is the sound that's making a lot of people happy, then so be it. But what I do is always changing. It's always developing."

Watson's introduction to such folk staples as James Alley Blues, Rock Salt and Nails and Midnight Special came during his teen years.

"I was in seventh grade when I first got into clawhammer banjo and old-time fiddle music," he says. "It grew from there. I was already listening to Woody Guthrie by then. I had done the Bob (Dylan) thing. I had done the Neil Young thing. I knew I liked acoustic music. But I liked rock 'n' roll, too. I was really into Crazy Horse and the whole grunge thing before all that. So it sort of went on from there."

"There is a common simplicity about this music and the way the chords work that draws people in. It feels friendly. It makes people feel comfortable. That's all over the place today, too. That's happening with Americana music now. It's happening with Mumford & Sons and those kinds of bands that have taken this whole structure of music and blown it up."

Old Crow Medicine Show was among the first new-generation bands to break through with such a "blown-up" folk sound. But Watson says his decade-plus tenure with the band was a vital training ground for the life of a modern traveling musician.

"That band did really well right away," Watson says. "We were in the right places at the right times. That's where I learned everything about what it's like to tour and be a working musician. We got hooked up with Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch pretty soon after we moved to Nashville. They really showed us the ropes about how to make records.

"Then we just got out there and played music. We did that for over 10 years with a bunch of guys. We just worked the road and let the road work for us."