Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
When we last heard much from Willie Watson, he was a member of Old Crow Medicine Show. But Watson left in 2011 to blaze his own musical path. Sort of. What Watson, who displays his acoustic guitar and banjo skills throughout, does is cover 10 folk songs with some on the ultra obscure side. While many of the songs have been recorded by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, they are not on the tips of everyone's tongues.
Watson, who has an imposing vocal presence that belies the simplicity of the delivery - it's almost always him accompanied by whatever instrument he is playing - starts off with probably the best known song on the disc. Watson turns in a soulful reading of the traditional "Midnight Special" with a solo acoustic delivery. He picks it up more than a few notches as the song reaches its conclusion.
Watson goes back to his youthful days with the bluegrassy "John Brown's Dream," which he learned from Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a western North Carolina performer who died more than 30 years ago. Watson turns to the blues on "Mother Earth," a 12-bar blues tune recorded by Memphis Slim in 1951. While the originals to these various songs may have provided Watson with a deeper understanding and appreciation of folk, he also wasn't anchored by the versions.
The recording style - David Rawlings produced and kept it ultra spare and simple musically throughout - put the focus squarely on Watson's vocal delivery. He has a bit of a quiver in his voice ("Midnight Special"), a sense of tension ("Stewball") and high lonesome ("Mexican Cowboy") with his banjo driving the song.
Watson has learned his folk - and that's an expansive term these days - music lessons well. And since this is called "Vol. 1," that can only mean one thing. Bring it on.