Peruse the preparation that went into his debut album and you can’t help but assume Willie Watson’s solo career is off to a grand start.First of all, he has the credentials – specifically, an extended but recently completed tenure with Old Crow Medicine Show.
Secondly, he has the repertoire – a library of generations-old folk, blues and pre-bluegrass country tunes, 10 of which make up Folk Singer, Vol. 1, the debut Watson album due for release on Tuesday.
Finally, he has the producer – in this case, Americana chieftain David Rawlings, who produced Folk Singer just as he did Old Crow Medicine Show’s breakthrough album O.C.M.S. in 2004.
With all that, plus a touring schedule that has him playing Kentucky no less than five times over the next three months, you would think the early days of Watson’s solo career were looking a little golden.
“I’m excited about the record, but my perspective is skewed in a way,” said Watson, who kicks off his spring/summer string of Kentucky shows with an appearance at the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Monday. “I don’t really hear it the same way people do, so I don’t know if it’s good. I haven’t really even heard it at this point. I wouldn’t listen to playbacks or anything in the studio. I mean, I heard it once through when it was mastered and then through different mastered versions as they went by over at Dave’s house. But I am interested to see what people think.
“I guess it’s not a matter of being happy with it. Those songs are those songs and that’s the way they sounded that day, and they might sound different now. So I don’t really need to be happy or unhappy with the record. I try not to get too hung up on that. I think as long as other people are happy with it then that will make me happy.”
“Those songs,” in the case of Folk Singer, are familiar folk/blues relics like Midnight Special and James Alley Blues as well as less obvious fare like Memphis Slim’s Mother Earth and Charley Jordan’s Keep It Clean. But instead of a full blown studio depiction of such music, Rawlings recorded Watson alone on guitar singing the songs of another time with rustic, intimate immediacy.
“In splitting from Old Crow, I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen,” Watson said. “I didn’t really know what the next thing was going to be. I didn’t know what road I was going to go down, so. I started writing songs and playing a few shows. It just seemed that the old stuff went over a lot better with the audience, and I enjoyed it a lot more, too. I wasn’t really into what I was writing. I’d much rather sing Midnight Special than anything I could write. It was just a lot more enjoyable for everybody.”
The practice of taking new but unvarnished views of antique material was, in itself, nothing new for Watson. It was essentially what the revivalist string sounds of Old Crow Medicine did in its early days.
“Back then, we didn’t really concern ourselves with writing songs. We were just a string band. I think that’s what we were best at, just playing these older songs. So with my record, it’s kind of back to the early days of Old Crow.”
Willie Watson performs at 7 p.m. May 5 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour with Acoustic Eidolon. Tickets are $10. For reservations, call (859) 252-8888.
Watson will also appear May 9 at Zanzabar in Louisville, June 26 at the Brown Theatre in Louisville with the Dave Rawlings Machine, July 11 at the Master Musicians Festival in Somerset and July 18 at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville.