The first song on Willie Watson’s new compilation of traditional American songs entitled, “Folksinger Vol. 2,” is one that was popularized by the Grateful Dead in 1976, yet has its roots in the Bible.
Sept. 21-24 | Lost Sierra Hoedown | Johnsville Historic Ski Bowl
It is said that Bob Weir learned “Samson and Delilah” from Reverend Gary Davis who in turn may have first heard it on the 1927 Blind Willie Johnson record, “If I Had My Way I’d Tear This Building Down.” Even before that, the tune was known to have been sold on city streets in the early decades of the century as a song sheet with the title, “Samson Tore the Building Down.”
“You know, in the early days when I was first attracted to this music, I think it was a stylistic thing,” says Watson. “It reflected a way of life I was interested in. I heard banjos and other cool sounding instruments, songs about mountain life and country people. I was already intrigued, but I was too young to realize emotionally how it affected me. Over time I started listening to these stories, delving into these songs and connecting with what the songs were about.”
Watson dug deep in the Americana songbook for the 11 gems on “Folksinger Vol. 2,” which include timeless classics such as “Gallows Pole,” “Cuckoo Bird” and “John Henry” and feature guest vocal performances by The Fairfield Four and Gillian Welch.
“I’m known to have high standards for a good song and I think that these songs are fantastic,” says Watson. “You’ve got to have something that’s got a lot more depth and good work that went into it. Then if I like something, I have to see if my sound allows me to sing it.”
Watson first came to national attention as the longhaired guitarist who sang soulful soprano harmonies for contemporary Americana standouts Old Crow Medicine Show.
“When I was young, I realized that that’s what I could do,” says Watson. “I listened to a lot of Neil Young as a teenager with that high voice singing and playing guitar. It just sort of stuck that way. And when it came time to fall in love with old mountain music, I found my voice was suited to it. I just fit in where I could.”
When Watson left Old Crow Medicine Show in 2011 to embark on a solo career, he asked old-time revivalist David Rawlings to record “Folksinger Vol. 2” on 2-inch analog tape at Rawlings and Welch’s Woodland Sound Studios in East Nashville.
“Dave and I like a lot of the same old records, how they sound and how they were made,” says Watson. “You want it to make you feel something, so you disregard the technical aspects of it. It doesn’t matter if you mess something up or even play out of tune. If take two makes you feel better, you take that one even if the guitar solo was better on take three.”
For Watson, a solo career has gifted him with the opportunity to play songs that speak to him, something that was lacking in his later years with Old Crow Medicine Show.
“I never thought I could be a solo performer,” he says. “I considered myself a band guy and that band was everything to me: my life, my career, my future. It had been a long time coming, but basically to sum it up, I didn’t like the music we were making. It’s not about being solo or in a band. As long as it’s honest and I love it, then I’m happy. I’m deeply moved by what I’m doing on a daily basis now. I’ve found myself.”
Watson will be among the musicians performing at the 5th annual Lost Sierra Hoedown from Sept. 21 to 24 at Johnsville Historic Ski Bowl.
“It’s a beautiful place and great group of people that like good music. You have to find those areas in the world where people that like it are really listening and this is one of them,” Watson says of playing at Lost Sierra, a sentiment echoed by fellow musicians.
“What has happened at this festival is better than what we ever imagined. There’s a true feeling of community. Everyone is there for the same reasons and we’re all in it together,” says Bobcat Rob Armenti.
“There’s camaraderie of bands that are becoming a family. The music gets better every year. We get to hang out and jam and grow stronger together,” adds Willy Tea Taylor, one of the many musicians as part of the four-day lineup.
Sean McAlindin’s extended Willie Watson interview
Is it true that you were discovered by Doc Watson?
Well, he didn’t really discover us. I mean anyone can discover anyone. But I’ll tell you the story. Many years ago a young woman was passing by as we were playing on the street corner in Boone, N.C. She stopped and listened and said, “My dad likes this music. I’m going to get my dad. Will you still be here when I get back?”
“We’ll be here, probably,” we said. “And, yes, go get your Dad.” Well, her Dad turned out to be Doc Watson. He liked us right away and said, “Let’s book them for MerleFest.”
At MerleFest, we met a woman named Sally Williams who booked the Grand Ole Opry. She saw us there and wanted us to come to Nashville to play out in front of the Grand Ole Opry. That’s the chain of events of led us to move to Nashville.
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Why did you leave Old Crow Medicine Show?
I never thought I could be a solo performer. I considered myself a band guy. That band was everything to me: my life, my career my future. It was just a difficult time with the personalities and the music that was being made. There was a lot of frustration and it was a tumultuous time. So that’s just kind of how it ended up happening. I just found myself.
It had been a long time coming but I found myself with musical differences, creative differences, and it caused a lot of tension. Basically, to sum it up, I didn’t like the music we were making and I didn’t like the music we were making for many years. These days I get to make the music that I feel strongly about. I just wanted the music we made to be good. I wanted to sing good songs and I didn’t think the songs for the previous two records were good. [Our Second Record] “Big Iron World” has some good stuff on it, but it started to fall off at that point in my opinion. The first record [“O.C.M.S.”] I think stands the test of time. I still listen to that record and I like it. I think it’s got some good songs on it.
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How did you choose which traditional songs to cover of the “Folksinger” albums?
I look for songs that are really good. And it’s not all good. Not all this music and folk music is good. There’s a lot, like in any other genre, there’s a lot of it that’s not great. There’s that and then if I like something I have to see if I can do it myself if my sound allows me to sing these songs. For a long time there was a lot of these songs that I thought I couldn’t do, and then I kept at it and then I realized that I can do this Revered Davis song. Then I realized that I can do a song, like “Samson and Delilah.”
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What makes a song good?
There are all kinds of factors. Now you can have something that’s listenable if it’s a got a good singer and good band. I can listen to something and enjoy listening to it. It can be a good song and maybe it could not be a good song, but it has some kind of melody or chord progression and it’s got a good voice and the band is moving along and I can listen to something.
Then you can have a good songs and terrible singer singing it and still realize it is a good song. And I can’t even listen to it. You’ve got to have something that’s got a little more to it with a lot more depth and good work that went into that.
I don’t know, I’ve been listening to Big Thief and I can give you some examples. That girl is really doing some good work and doing some good writing. I mean, she’s killing it, man. She’s doing good stuff and using words put together a little more smart. And it’s what she’s talking about, too. You don’t necessarily know what she’s talking about, but you start listening a little more and you realize she’s putting on a higher level. That’s what I look for in a song.
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How do you feel about the song “Wagon Wheel” now it has become somewhat of a part of the traditional canon to the point that people have begun posting #nowagonwheel signs at open mics?
I think it’s all great. It was a good song 15 years, nearly 20 years ago I guess, and it was good song when we put it on that record. It’s still a good song. That’s why people like it so much. If it gets a bad rap, that’s what trends tend to do. It’s the hipster thing. If it’s too cool, we can’t like it anymore. If Darius Rucker records it and it’s a hit, it’s going to reach a lot more people.
All those people, they’re not hung up ahead of the curve on being too popular. They’re just going to like it for what it is. People like that song because they can relate to it. It’s about love. It’s about leaving a companion and being in love and going the distance for that love. That’s something that everybody wants.
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Do you ever play it live?
Not usually in my solo sets, but when I’m in the crowd and the bands sees Willie Watson there and they want me to play it with them, I’d be an asshole not to. I’m honored and flattered that this song is part of that world and in that canon.
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Are you writing many of your own songs these days?
I haven’t written any songs in a long time. It’s inevitable that something comes out though. Sometimes I’ll write a line or two, a little kernel of a song, but I don’t really focus on it these days. My only hang up is it’s great doing these old songs. It’s a lot of strong material, but there’s always something up her road ahead that I don’t have musically that I want. I’m always striving for what’s next.
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How long have you played with Dave Rawlings Machine?
Ever since the start, I’ve played guitar, banjo and fiddle and done a whole lot of singing.
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I didn’t realize you played the fiddle …
I pick it up a couple times a year and scratch away ‘til it gets greasy.