After leaving Old Crow Medicine Show, Willie Watson gets back to a rawer, simplified sound on his solo debut.
Part of the appeal of upstate New York string ensemble Old Crow Medicine Show was that not only were they young musicians playing old timey folk-bluegrass-Americana, but also that they did it with genuine enthusiasm, fresh energy and a soft spot for traditions—on their early records you could literally hear the strings plucking right along with the notes of the tunes.
Founding member Willie Watson liked the rawness of the group’s early recordings, particularly the way they recorded—all gathered in a room around the microphone. They were brilliantly captured by producer Dave Rawlings.
As popular as old folk revival tunes have gotten, there was barely a small national audience for the music in the ’90s when they started. So it was a bit of a surprise to the group in the mid-2000s when they were drawing big crowds, and getting press with major non-country publications. More success eventually meant more polish and production, a direction Watson didn’t want to go in. He quit in 2011.
“It was heading somewhere that I wasn’t interested in. I don’t even know what the approach was. There was talk about what the band was supposed to do next, and what its face would look like, what category we wanted to be sold at in record stores,” Watson says. “I didn’t have a plan. I never thought I’d be a solo artist. I didn’t know what it would be.”
It took nearly four years, but Watson released his debut solo record, Folk Singer, Vol 1, this past May, and though the music is quite different than anything Old Crow has done, it does hail back to the early days in one important manner: the raw sound of record, which Watson got by re-enlisting Rawlings as producer.
His solo music stays within the Americana-old-timey category, but rather than inspiring a jamboree, the tunes are much more intimate and down-tempo. It’s just Watson singing and strumming his acoustic guitar (or plucking his banjo). He and Rawlings recorded it like the early Old Crow records—no overdubs, and with just a couple of takes per song.
“I like Rawlings’ approach, it’s very old school fashion of making records,” Watson says. “I’m happy to be able to delve into a more intimate feel. I get to do certain kinds of songs that Old Crow wouldn’t have gotten to do. It’s freeing. There’s certain things I can’t do now that I don’t have a band with me. It’s a better trade-off, doing the solo thing.”
This album, he makes a point to emphasize, is not a cover album, but rather a collection of his renditions of traditional folk songs. He also points out that at the time when these old songs were written, it wasn’t uncommon for folk singers to play tunes written by other songwriters. It wasn’t till years later that there was an expectation for musicians to be both the singer and the songwriter.
He did, intend when he left Old Crow, to write originals, he just didn’t feel like the material he was producing worked very well.
“I was a little frustrated with the writing,” Watson says. “I figured it would be better to play the old songs. They were just better, and they made the crowd react, whereas they didn’t necessarily react to the ones I was writing. It was all around a better experience for everyone.”
Even Old Crow, in the very early days, used to play traditional songs quite a bit. In fact their breakout 2004 album, O.C.M.S is about half originals, and half traditional tunes.
Picking material for the solo record wasn’t tough, since he listens to these old folk songs all the time. He would just wait for one to jump out at him that he really liked, and could imagine himself singing. The tunes all fit Watson, and even sound like he wrote them, which is precisely what a folk singer should be able to do.
“There’s so much music in that vein, and recordings from the ’20s all up through the ’60s and ’70s. If I could play all the songs that I like, I would have hundreds of folk singer volumes now. I could put out a record every week,” Watson says.
Info: 9 p.m., Friday, Jan. 30, Don Quixote’s, Felton, $15.