Willie Watson – Folk Singer Vol.2
Acony Records – 15 September 2017
It’s certainly easy to feel like a lucky listener when not one but two Acony Records, home of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, bless us in the space of a couple of months (you can read my review of Rawlings’ Poor David’s Almanack here).
About a year before Dave Rawlings dropped Nashville Obsolete, Willie Watson, having left Old Crow Medicine Show, went into the studio with Dave and sang a bunch of songs into a microphone, with just his old Larrivee guitar or Gibson banjo for company. Although Watson was less enamoured with the result than the rest of us, Folk Singer Vol.1 was a hit, with old favourites like ‘Midnight Special’ given bright new interpretations. Vol.2 carries on the pattern, with Watson singing more traditional tunes with minimal adornments, but, as mentioned above, the odd flourish has been added. The gospel touches on ‘Delilah’ treat the ear, but it’s still that salient voice that cuts through everything else on here.
Things get quite dark with ‘Gallows Pole’, a working of a traditional tune that dates from centuries back but is probably best known as the Led Zeppelin version, from their III album. Watson trims the track down to four minutes and leaves the arrangement quite spare, with his melancholy guitar line and sad harmonica providing the meat, their slowed down pace cleverly evoking the waiting game the story describes. Unlike with Robert Plant, this protagonist isn’t shouting to be set free, but merely stalling what he perceives as the inevitable. The crime leading to the noose has varied throughout the years, as has the gender of the victim, but it’s not mentioned here, and our narrator is wonderfully wearied to the point of the voice cracking, even through the redemption and slightly fuller instrumentation adding to the last couple of minutes of the track.
On Vol.1, a song that was as endearing as it was odd was ‘Kitty Puss’, a microphone tester that somehow made it onto and became the stand out on that record. Here the same scenario has occurred, with the same result. Willie had no intention of putting Clarence Ashley’s work song ‘Walking Boss’ onto this set when he was warming up the mic, but here it is, and it’s the highlight of the album. Much like ‘Gallows Pole’, the vocal is weary, but it stops you in your tracks, with its resolute ‘Walking boss, no I don’t belong to you / I belong to that steal-driving crew’. The guitar picking is simple, and the harmonica is again effective in conjuring the hard done by: ‘Work one day, just a day, just a day, and go lay in the shanty too’. It could be the intimate analogue recording that adds to the atmosphere, but this less than three-minute track is just magic and really articulates Watson’s strengths as a singer and player.
If it all sounds like heavy weather, things lighten considerably for the second half of the disc, starting with ‘On the Road Again’, one of Watson’s live staples for some time and another featuring the gifts of a cracking backing vocal band. The guitar line here has more attack from a flat pick, which adds to the direct and entertaining nature of the tune. It’s another shorty, at two and a half, but pleasing and immediate. Elsewhere is ‘Cuckoo Bird’, a traditional English tune, and the classic and well-trodden ‘John Henry’, here performed with energy and a fast banjo line, reminiscent of ‘Mexican Cowboy’ from the first record. It’s a testament to Willie’s talents that he can tackle such a variety of songs, from the popular to the obscure and treat them with obvious respect and skill. Even more impressive is how well this second set of folk songs hang together and never outstay their welcome. Think of Vol.2 as a slightly grittier but still as fun cousin to Almanack.