Old Crow Medicine Show is one of the most successful modern folk bands—yet founding member Willie Watson decided he needed to walk away from the group in 2011.
After struggling initially as a solo artist, Watson has hit his stride. In 2014, he released his first solo album, Folk Singer, Vol. 1—and this month, he’s releasing the much-anticipated follow-up, Folk Singer, Vol. 2.
On Friday, Sept. 29, Watson will be appearing at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace.
During a recent phone interview, he explained his love for the folk music he’s played most of his life.
“It goes back to my early days when I first discovered it,” Watson said. “I was probably too young to realize exactly what it was and dissect it in a way to know how it was making me feel, but in the early days, I thought, ‘I really like this banjo thing, and I really like what it stands for and represents.’ It’s like country stuff; it’s like living out in the mountains, and it went along with a style. It went along with a way of life that I was intrigued by.
“Over time, that grew. You start to listen to the songs and start listening to what they’re about, and you realize there’s a lot of depth and (there are) a lot of ways that it can reach you. It reached me and it dug into my heart and my soul. I started to connect with the stories and really feel the music. Fiddle tunes would make me cry. I formed a really emotional and spiritual connection with music.”
Watson has said he has no regrets about leaving Old Crow Medicine Show—citing personal responsibilities and creative differences—although it was not easy.
“(It was hard) to break away from a group of guys that I spent some really important years of my youth with and not having that bond anymore,” Watson said. “The dynamic of the relationship of a band is like nothing else. Unless you’ve ever been in a band for a long time, worked with that band, and lived with that band for many years, it’s hard to understand. People probably have a general idea. It’s like having something you’d die for. It was hard to lose that relationship.”
Watson talked about his brand-new album.
“It’s really the same program as Folk Singer, Vol. 1: It’s folk songs, and half of the record is just me playing solo, no other musicians or anybody else. The other half, we added some players,” he said. “I have Paul Kowert from the Punch Brothers, who is also who I play with in the David Rawlings Machine, and he’s playing bass on the song. Morgan Jahnig from Old Crow Medicine Show plays bass on another song. We also brought in the Fairfield Four, who are a pretty infamous gospel group, to sing backup vocals on a few songs.
“It’s got a bit more of a full sound. That first record is very sparse and real bare. (Some fans) either love that, or they hate that, because they need a richer, fuller sound. I think this record will reach more people who were turned off by the first record who didn’t hear the technical things they expected to hear from professional musicians.”
Gospel music is a big part of folk music, and Watson agreed that whether one is Christian or not, the songs resonate.
“In this world of folk music and the roots-music canon, people like gospel music as much as the blues, because it fits in with the whole genre,” Watson said. “I don’t know if people really think too much about it. I don’t know anyone who is turned off by it. Me, personally? I love it. I’m very moved by old gospel songs. A lot of it has to do with how the songs are put together and the chord structures. The melodies fit on top of those chord structures, and are beautiful and glorious, just as they’re intended to be. They give you that feeling of togetherness, hope and dealing with hardships. If you’ve ever been through real troubles in your life, and you hear those songs, those songs are speaking to you. That’s what draws me to it.
“I don’t call myself a Christian. I just can’t get there, and there’s a lot of information out there these days when it comes to science and other religions, but I wish I could. I’m envious of devout Christians, that they can just put all their faith into Jesus. I’ve tried to find a balance between that, but I think the messages those songs carry ring true, no matter what you believe.”
We discussed the Old Crow Medicine Show song “Wagon Wheel,” which has become a ubiquitous cover song; some music stores have even put up “NO ‘WAGON WHEEL’” signs above the guitars.
“I met Ketch (Secor, who wrote the song with Bob Dylan) of Old Crow Medicine Show in 1997. Not long after knowing him, I heard that song for the first time in a kitchen in New York. I immediately thought it was great,” he said. “We started that band, and we sang that song for many years before we put it on that record (O.C.M.S. in 2004). We were glad that we were finally doing something with it—putting it on tape, and getting it out there. When I think about it, I wonder why we didn’t record it sooner. We were that old-time string band. We were making records in our living room; we were doing jug-band songs and mountain music.
“We were learning a lot when we made that record, especially about how to make records—how to play a song in a studio and these little things, like not playing as hard as you think you need to play, what the editing process is all about, and all of those things that go into making a record.”
Watson said he has a deep appreciation for Pappy and Harriet’s.
“People can go to the Hollywood Bowl, and it’s like, ‘Oh, this is a huge show with this prestigious band. They’re really far away from me, and I’m all the way in the back. I don’t feel connected in this situation.’ … Pappy and Harriet’s (is) a room with so much character and a setting with so much beauty, and being out in the desert like that, it’s got a vibe of its own. All of those things combined make for a good time for everybody.”
Willie Watson will perform with Bedouine at 9 p.m., Friday, Sep. 29, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $15. For tickets or more information, call 760-365-5956, or visit pappyandharriets.com.