When first introducing a friend to traditional Appalachian folk and blues, there’s always the question of where to start. With Folk Singer Vol. 1, Willie Watson has provided an effective gateway.
Watson, a former member of Old Crow Medicine Show, makes his solo debut with a collection of 10 traditional songs that have been covered several times, but still are unlikely to be known by the common listener. He avoids loving and praying songs and sticks to working songs, living songs, and blues.
This subject matter still resonates in a modern context. Whatever decade it’s sung in, the lesson of “Mother Earth” — on which Watson reveals a surprisingly great blues voice — will still ring true:
You may own half a city
May have diamonds and pearls
May have your own airplane, baby
And fly all over this world
But I don’t care how great you are
Don’t care what you’re worth
When it all ends up
You got to go back to Mother Earth
Watson’s performance is sparse, but nuanced. The lyrics remain mostly original, but he makes small changes here and there to suit his style. These songs were written during a period when they were meant to be interpreted through a number of different performers. Watson remains faithful, but does enough to make these songs his own.
Folk Singer Vol. 1 was produced by the one and only Dave Rawlings, whose work succeeds because he mostly gets out of the way. One can easily get trapped into trying to make old songs sound old, but Rawlings lets the songs do the work themselves. Only Watson’s voice, his nimble guitar or banjo, and his harmonica come through the speakers and each sounds pristine and clean.
The clean sound, the simple performance, and the solid selection of songs sums up to a traditional album that doesn’t feel like history homework. Folk Singer Vol. 1 is perfect for listeners unfamiliar with traditional music, but Watson’s performance makes it a recommended listen for fans of the genre as well.
Willie Watson is playing the Cat’s Cradle Back Room on Wednesday, July 16. Tickets are $10 in advance via Ticketfly.