Willie Watson formulates modern folk music fixed in tradition. He serves as a modern purveyor of long-standing songs, passing along his own variation of the roots that preceded him. His music is not a headline on the front page of a tabloid newspaper, nor is it conformity, and it is definitely not commercialism.
Watson grew up in the Ithaca, New York, area surrounded by a bustling old-time music scene of seasoned banjo players and fiddlers, and his love of bygone sounds stems from there.
“I remember when I first heard a cassette of old-time fiddler and string musician Tommy Jarrell,” said Watson, 39. “It didn’t say drink hard liquor or didn’t scream hay bales or high-speed car chases down dirt rounds, or the kind of stuff that bluegrass now suits. To me, bluegrass felt commercialized and uptight. Where the old-time fiddle stuff was honest and it had depth and richness and the feel where I liked it. I found bluegrass and the banjos hokey, but I’ve grown to appreciate it.”
It was Kurt Cobain’s rendition of Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” along with Harry Smith’s The Anthology of American Folk Music that altered the way that Watson observed music.
“Cobain’s version just blew me away and it got me into all this different stuff,” said Watson. “Then it was Neil Young and Bob Dylan and acoustic music. I got an acoustic guitar and started singing songs. I grew up next to a rural area in the farms and national forest, and the acoustic guitar represented the forest, the lakes, and the skies. I knew it [Watkins Glen, New York] was a special place after I’d left home and explored the rest of the country.”
While Watson has no problem with other musicians sprucing and sexing up their acts with glamor and goop, he sticks to what resonates deep within his own core.
“Any instrument, from the cello, to the electric guitar or the harpsichord, they all can have a gimmick,” said Watson. “There is a time and a place for gimmicks and I’ve got no problem with showmanship. That’s nothing new in entertainment. Myself, I am drawn to good songs and to performers that I can believe in and connect to and relate to on that level. Music is an important thing to me in my life, and I am emotional and sensitive about it. I try to perform and sing in the way that the performers I love were influenced by, and by my perception of their experience.”
Watson isn’t one for technicalities; he admits that his own voice can come across as “gravelly” and even “a little weird,” but he’s not about to concede or even cede an inch of space to what’s popular.
“All of the pop stuff for the most part is fed through the same media, and the music that most people listen to has been pushed on people. They’ve been fed a bunch of crap and that’s disheartening. That bothers me and I don’t know why. I mean, I understand why people like what it is that they like, and there is plenty of pop music that is good. But it doesn’t have that depth that drives me and there is nothing for me there to connect to and relate to. The songs that I have are the ones that a young Bob Dylan would be realistic and logical about [playing] it.”
From Southern gospel and railroading songs, to the Delta blues spirituals and the hum of Irish fiddles, Watson carries on an integral tradition in folk music: sharing.
“I’m into the story-songs that are sometimes about real people, but for the most part I’m not into the history of it. Some play music and are interested in the history, too. But I don’t play to those who are interested in the history and the purists, and I’m not a purist. I’m not critical and uptight but I don’t care about that — the info about [African-American folk hero] John Henry. I could play it all day and not know that he’s a real person and it would not make any difference.”
He identifies as a “folk singer” and “storyteller,” with a catalog of songs that shrink the gap between then and now. Watson is attracted to the music of the wanderers who had realized a certain power was in their grasp and they used it. It is the type of composition that showed many people (both artist and audience alike) that they could actually be themselves.
“It’s an intense feeling, the solo experience, which allows me to dig in and feel it very deeply, and people at the shows feel it on the same level, which is a fulfilling and gratifying experience. Is it part selfless? I’m trying to figure that out. I still don’t fully comprehend and believe whether or not that it (the folk music) is just for me or do I do it to truly connect with people, and whether or not it’s pure," he said.
Watson went through a transitional period after departing Old Crow Medicine Show, a group he co-founded.
"I was always a band guy, and around a group of guys. It was like a club. Right now, I’m glad that I’ve had this time to be on my own and to grow up a little bit. A lot of guys are 45 and they act like 16. I’m not 39 going on 17," he said.
Over the course of two compilations, Watson has tried to popularize songs associated with artists such as Leadbelly, Reverend Gary Davis, Furry Lewis, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Most of these songs, said Watson, "don’t belong to those artists.” They are a piece of the folk annals.
On timeless songs such as “Samson and Delilah,” Watson reveals a love of gospel quartet harmonies. Next minute, he’s a balladeer on “Gallows Pole,” and a downhearted bluesman and slide guitarist on “When My Baby Left Me.” “Dry Bones” finds him bawling over a banjo, and he infuses “Take This Hammer” with the sensitivity of a churchgoing soul singer.
Watson said that he wants to be more than “only an interpreter of older songs;” He wants to reinvigorate the ballads that not only created a genre, but formed an entire country. In the process he also hopes to renew an interest in expressing individuality in all its myriad forms.
“I want to do what my heroes were doing,” said Watson. “All I want to do is connect with people. That’s a huge part of the human instinct.”