Willie Watson, formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show, is turning to the South to help build some momentum for his new solo act.
“We wanted to hit certain markets right off the bat,” Watson told C-VILLE Weekly in a recent phoner. “The South is sort of the hotbed of my fan base.”
Watson will likely find a receptive group when he takes the stage at the Southern Café and Music Hall on May 16 to play songs from his inaugural solo record, a collection of covers entitled Folk Singer Vol. 1.
Those who know Watson from his Old Crow days should be warned the warbler and guitarist/banjoist has redefined himself in the three years since he left the band. Watson said creative differences drove him away from his old mates, and that’s evident in his stripped down first EP, which has none of the raunchiness of the band he left behind.
“I took some time off, did the family thing, figured out what my next move was,” he said. “Through that process, I was listening to a lot of music, and I heard all these songs I wanted to do. I think this is just the music I wanted to be singing.”
Watson wouldn’t go into the details of his break with Old Crow, and he declined to say whether he was still on good terms with all or most of the progressive bluegrass outfit’s members. “What I’m doing now is a lot more fulfilling,” was as far he would go at distancing himself from his musical past.
Watson does credit Old Crow, among others, for helping push old-timey music back toward relevance, a cultural condition that he will certainly play on to build fans of his solo enterprise.
On Folk Singer Vol. 1, Watson said the goal was to find old songs that were in his range and at the same time inspiring. Sometimes, he would pick out a track while listening to a record, give it a go, and find that it fell flat. Most of the time, though, he has a pretty good handle on what he can do well.
Take “Midnight Special,” the well-known standard that starts the record. He sings the tune with grace, but if you were to stop listening to the album there, you might be inclined to dismiss Watson as talented, but not someone who’s adding much to the conversation. Sticking around pays dividends, though. Watson starts to pick up steam through B-sides like “Mexican Cowboy” and “Kitty Puss,” and goes out with a bang on “Keep It Clean,” a tune perhaps most famously recorded by Lyle Lovett.
Where Lovett’s version of “Keep It Clean” is a bouncy bit of cheesy honkytonk, Watson’s is deliberate and thoughtful. The arrangement gives the song more gravity, and highlights the skeptical religious imagery running throughout.
“The subject matter of that song is unique, and you don’t hear it very often in that old music,” Watson said. “People have heard a lot of songs about the Blue Ridge Mountains. Then they hear something like ‘Keep It Clean,’ and it resonates. I try to find those songs that have something extra to keep people interested.”
Watson said he’s not so much concerned with being a songwriter right now, nor does he necessarily need to be in a band. He’s on the road by himself, just taking the stage with his voice, a harmonica, and a couple of stringed instruments. He’s playing shows that are more about bobbing your head and listening to music than the “raucous party” Old Crow orchestrated.
“Some of the old fans show up and expect it is going to be like the old thing, but it is definitely not,” Watson said. “They still come to the shows, but for the most part, I think they figure it out quickly.”
As the name of the new record implies, Watson’s near future probably holds another album or two composed of folk covers. But he’s also open to moving on to different projects (he was featured in a documentary about the music of Inside Llewyn Davis, for example) and coming back to the Folk Singer series somewhere down the road.
Part of what makes Watson so comfortable with where he is right now is, ironically, a holdover from Old Crow. He’s still working with the band’s producer David Rawlings, along with Rawlings’ associate producer and accomplished singer-songwriter Gillian Welch.
“I love working with Gillian and Dave,” Watson said. “He is a perfect producer for me. Whatever I’m doing, it’s likely he’s going to be involved.”
Old Crow is itself a band that seems to be constantly in flux, something that perhaps contributed to Watson not being happy with his situation. The group had gone on hiatus in 2011 when founding member Critter Fuqua left, only to return several months after Watson took leave later that year.
“We had just sort of grown apart—musical differences I suppose,” Watson said. “It was just time to move on for everyone involved. I am really happy about where I am now, however it all went down.”
So, one more time: How did it all go down? “No comment,” Watson said.