Willie Watson’s excellent Folk Singer Vol. I sparsely frames 10 traditional tunes with only vocals and guitar or banjo. The approach particularly shines on songs like Lead Belly’s “Midnight Special” and “Stewball.”
The former Old Crow Medicine Show member supports the album in Nashville on Tuesday (May 6) at Grimey’s, Wednesday at Music City Roots and Thursday at the Station Inn.
“The Station Inn’s gonna be great,” Watson says. “It always attracts a really wonderful, attentive crowd. Nashville’s like my musical hometown even though I don’t live there. I’ll get to see the crazy, lifelong Old Crow fans.”
CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.
Watson: I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen on my own and whether I was gonna have a band or be solo, but I figured I’d just get out there and play music. I had a hankering to get out there and play some music for people.
Actually, what happened was Sean Watkins from Nickel Creek booked me to play a show at this little festival without telling me. I was tagging along with those guys, and I got there and looked at the schedule, and there I was on the bill. I was like, “Oh, my god. What happened?” So I had to throw together a set by the next day. The pressure was on, but I figured it out.
Were you nervous?
Yeah, I was scared. I had some stage fright. I wasn’t sure if I could be a solo musician, you know? I did it, and it just worked out. It was a good show, and people responded. I had a lot of fun doing it, and it gave me some confidence. So I just went from there.
Explain the song selection process for the album.
I listen to old music a lot. Basically, the idea was to go into the studio and make it real simple. I would just do my part and Dave [producer David Rawlings] would do his part in the control room. I would stand in front of the microphone and sing, and we would go through everything I was thinking of off the top of my head and what I thought were good songs. We recorded maybe 25 or closer to 30 songs, and Dave went through and decided what would be best for the record.
What drew you to “Midnight Special”?
Well, it’s just a damn good song. It’s something that moved me even though it’s kind of like, “It’s ‘Midnight Special.’ I’ve heard that song a bunch of times.” I think a lot of old-time folky people these days try to find the obscure song that no one’s done and make it something different. I get caught up in that, too, but it just came on when I was listening to Lead Belly. He’s one of my favorites. I get stuck on him, hooked and obsessed.
So I was listening to a Lead Belly cassette — I have a cassette player in my car — and “Midnight Special” came on. I hadn’t heard it for a long time, and it was like, “This song is so good.” That’s all I look for. If something moves me, I want to sing it. If I want to sing it, I’ll find a way to interpret it and make it suit my sound.
What is it about Lead Belly that hooks you?
It’s just the way it sounds, man, the way he sings and plays guitar. It’s pretty simple, but that guy has a darn good sound. I feel like my voice is suited to sing Lead Belly songs. I don’t sound just like him, but I can sing them. I can do something with my voice to pull that off. He’s got this deep, rich sound that really moves me.
You’ve said you had to relearn how to fill out the space playing solo.
In a band, you’ve got everybody doing their parts, and it’s a full sound. I don’t think there are a lot of people who can play solo and make it really work. When I was in that band and working on songs, you’re sitting at home and thinking, “Oh, a fiddle can do this and make it sound complete.”
So I had to put that aside. You can’t be thinking that there’s anything else. You’re gonna have to make the music move and flow yourself under the vocals, and it has to have all the aspects — syncopation, percussion, rhythm, high notes and low notes and melody. You have to fit that all into one instrument and your voice.
How did Dave help shape the sound?
He’s a really good pair of ears to have around. We have a lot of the same tastes. We’re on the same page musically, real kindred spirits in that way. That doesn’t happen often. With Gil [Gillian Welch] and Dave, it’s all on the same page. I wouldn’t rather work with anybody, honestly. Gil and Dave are first choice always. He’s great to be able to help me figure out what’s going on and give me a perspective. He gives me one I don’t necessarily see.
I don’t have any perspective. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I live with my voice and playing every day. I hear different things than other people hear. It’s not fresh to my ears anymore. Dave can tell you, “That song you like isn’t as good as you think, but that song you think is lame? That’s really good.” You’re like, “Really? I don’t know.” He says, “Trust me. That song’s really good.” You have to be open to that. You can’t get too hung up on things and be too married to what you think your artistic integrity might be.
Will there be a Vol. II?
I would certainly hope so. Yeah, we definitely plan on it. Who knows? We might even do a Vol. III and IV. It’s something we can keep on doing. I can put together a Vol. II and still do other projects and write a bunch of songs and a couple of years down the road put out a Vol. III. There are always new songs to do.