Campfire Tales: Willie Watson interviewed
The transition from a successful band to a solo career can be a tough one and Willie Watson didn’t choose the easy route when he departed from Nashville based folk-bluegrass collective Old Crow Medicine Show a couple of years ago. What made the transition easier for Willie was his love and appreciation of old time music, as he told us when we had a transatlantic chat recently to support the release of his debut solo album, Folk Singer Volume 1.
Starting out on his own though, there was no clear direction of travel for the OCMS founder: “I wasn’t really sure what was gonna happen musically, or what I was gonna do when I split with Old Crow. I went to work on writing a lot of songs but I was pretty unsatisfied with them.” But life on the road “playing a few shows that were about half and half split between old traditional songs and my songs, it was just a lot more fun to sing those old songs,” and the advice of producer and longtime cohort Dave Rawlings (“He really just drove it home for me, he said 'Don’t worry about this writing thing, it’s too much pressure, these old songs sound better'") - brought the focus Watson needed.
For anyone leaving a band, the first time you strike out on your own must be a little alien, but for the Louisiana native it wasn’t just a band, it was a big band with seven members and he was literally on his own. “It was terrifying at first, I was really nervous, like I haven’t really been nervous before. I had to figure out how to put that show on and make it flow.” The one thing that Watson feels made it easier were the songs he was playing: “Picking the right songs is really everything, that seems to be the thing that’s getting me by with this whole project, just pick some good songs, having songs that find me.”
Working with producer Dave Rawlings did make it less daunting - “I trust Dave,” says Watson. And despite not having listened to the finished album right through, the former Old Crow man is satisfied with the result. “The reception seems to be pretty good, people like it and it’s doing pretty well. That’s all I can hope for, that’s all I can say really, that I hope people like that thing.”
Having almost detached himself from the record now it’s out in the wild, Watson doesn’t “have any perspective on it, it’s just me and my voice, and I live with my voice everyday and I don't know what it sounds like. It sounds different to me than it does everybody else.” And that seems to play to a theme of the conversation, Watson has found that “the whole thing has been freeing” and that seems to have been the main difference from his previous job. On Folk Singer… “all that other stuff I haven’t cared about, at all, just totally carefree with this whole thing. Dave was stood on his side of the glass and I just played music, and that’s what I’m doing out on the road. It’s still simple, it’s the same thing as it was in the studio, it’s the same process, simple and carefree, and I just have to stand there and sing songs that I really like. And that’s the best part about it because it’s continually fun, I can do whatever I want, if I’m sick of something I don’t have to keep playing it.”
All of that suggests that “freeing” isn’t what the singer's final days with OCMS were like, but it’s a subject he’s been reluctant to talk about, and still is - “I don’t know, talkin’ about that stuff. It’s OK, I feel like they maybe talk about it more than me.” It’s a subject he expands on but is reticent in saying anything too controversial, or too private. Sentences start, then end abruptly, but the overriding feeling is that Watson just felt it was the end for him with the band, no specific reason, it was just time. “It was a tough thing [to leave], the whole thing was... it was time to move on. It was hard to see that, it was really hard to see it was time to go. That band stuff can be frustrating and really wear you out. At the time my daughter had just turned one and being on the road all the time was just ridiculous, it was just that time.”
Happier times are here now though as Watson is embarking on the next steps with his collection of old time folk songs. There are some interesting choices on his album including some well known tracks such as ‘Midnight Special’, made famous by Creedence Clearwater Revival. “There are songs out there that you do stay away from, and sometimes you realise maybe you don’t have to stay away from them, like ‘Midnight Special’. A lot of people said 'oh, no, no, maybe not Midnight Special', just because of its popularity.” As it turns out that song has been one of the triumphs of his live set - “I’ve had people come up and say ‘Midnight Special’ brought tears to their eyes, which surprises me because they recognise it and they hadn’t heard it since they were four and it reminded them of their Dad.”
And there are more where that came from, as the Volume 1 in the album title alludes to. “We have a whole bunch of stuff on tape that didn’t make the record. We’ll probably go back and redo some of that stuff and try to get in the studio again for Volume 2. I’m just touring like crazy so there’s no way to get in there right now but we don’t want to wait too long for that stuff. I might make an electronic record," Watson laughs, “then do volume 3!”
Willie Watson is on tour in the UK from September 3rd, check his website for dates. Folk Singer Volume 1 is available to buy now.