Folk Singer Vol. 1
3.5 out of 5 stars
The solo debut from from former Old Crow Medicine Show rhythm guitarist Willie Watson is a straightforward collection of folk traditionals and covers. Produced by Dave Rawlings, Folk Singer Vol. 1 presents a version of folk that ranges from 19th century standards (“Stewball”) to 50’s R&B hits (“Mother Earth”), to 60’s murder ballads (“Rock Salt and Nails”), but Watson largely sticks to the blues canon of the pre-WWII American south.
There are several genuine treats on this old-fashioned covers record. “James Alley Blues” and “Rock Salt and Nails” are both perfect fits for Watson’s expressive tenor; he nails the phrasing on the the latter is a haunting, devastating showstopper so heavy that it makes the rest of the album seem inconsequential.
Folk Singer starts off strong, with Watson hamming it up on the opening track “Midnight Special,” somehow making the well-worn iconic train song feel brand new. His pacing gives the song a newfound drama, and even though Watson insists he learned the song via Leadbelly (not Credence), he effortlessly embues the standard with more pop immediacy than John Fogerty or Van Morrison ever could.
It’s a small shame, then, that Watson, who plays banjo, guitar and harmonica on his genuinely solo effort, plays it so straight the rest of the time. The upstate New York singer knows these songs are funny, but there’s slight air of folkie self-seriousness surrounding Folk Singer that makes it harder to get in on the joke. Lucky for Watson, he’s such an expressive vocalist that he can carry an entire solo, acoustic record by merely hinting at his charming charisma as a performer and interpreter of American song.