Heartstrings Review

‘Folk Singer’ Beginnings: Willie Watson

By: Lauren Jahoda



If the name Willie Watson doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps the line “…so rock me mama like a wagon wheel…” will, a verse that has entertained you at some time or another, or in some bar or another. While Watson has been an integral force behind the ultra-successful Americana string-jam quintet, Old Crow Medicine Show, he is now solo, materializing a sound that has undoubtedly been building within.

Watson grew up in Watkins Glen, NY, located on the Southern tip of one of our beautiful Finger Lakes and soon landed himself in nearby Ithaca. On his eventual travels with Old Crow, he spent time with legendary Doc Watson and other musicians who shared their old-time talent and knowledge with the band.

Watson’s debut solo album is simply and fittingly entitled “Folk Singer Vol.1” (Acony Records) and provides a mix of just that — traditional, organic folk-singing. Fortunately for us, this title is coupled with “Vol. 1,” as an unambiguous nod towards the plans for a Vol. 2. The album includes well-known renditions of tunes by Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), Utah Phillips and Charley Jordan, as well as Watson’s remarkable original, which easily amounts to that of his quintessential counterparts. It was while listening to Watson’s singing of Lead Belly’s ever-famous “Midnight Special” and the Utah Phillips original “Rock, Salt and Nails” that I recognized the potency of his voice, endowed with a  quivering and vibrating, especially as he reaches his high notes and prolongs his words. Watson’s voice is unmasked and a sound that penetrates, much like rock, salt and nails. David Rawlings, of David Rawlings Machine and who also produced the album, tells us:

He’s had some tragedy in his life, which has informed his art. There’s an emotional edge to what he does because of who he is as a human being. Willie is the only one of his generation who can make me forget these songs were ever sung before.


In one week, I’ll be heading to Happy Valley, Oregon, where Watson will be performing at Pickathon music festival on the one-of-a-kind 80-acre Pendarvis Farm. Of the 54 bands playing Pickathon this year, Watson is among the top five most anticipated performers on my list. As of now, Watson is on the road to Newport Folk Festival and he’s carrying a pack of songs at his side that will pledge the harmonious comfort all attendees embrace during this legendary annual weekend retreat.

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