MUSIC REVIEW: Watson loves music, Watkins roots
LOS ANGELES--Willie Watson is the proverbial small town boy who has made it to the big screen. Known locally for his music talent and his success with Old Crow Medicine Show, Willie's national acclaim includes his solo albums of Folk Singer Volume 1-2 and his most recent success as "The Kid" in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coen Brothers production was nominated for three Academy Awards including the best original song, "When a Cowboy Trades his Spurs for Wings," sung by Watson and Tim Blake Nelson. The song was written by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings.
Willie Watson's character is that of a young singing cowboy whose quick draw leads to the demise of Buster Scruggs in the opening vignette of the six farcical western stories. Watson's soul stirring voice is clean and pure, starkly moving in the fateful scene where the younger, faster cowboy outguns the legend. Watson's lyrical voice tells of the tender and inevitable story of a cowboy's life and death as he rides off into the desert. His performance is masterful.
Willie Watson grew up on Durland Street in Watkins Glen with his parents, Mike and Marianne Watson and brothers Sanders and Nils. While the world of wrestling was a household passion, young Watson was moved by creative expression and an early penchant for old time music. Watson left Watkins Glen high school as a junior in 1996.
Willie's dad's collection of records were a goldmine with the eclectic sounds of Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Lead Belly stoking Watson's teenage passion and setting his course. At 14, Watson found his way into the Trumansburg and Ithaca music scene with his dad driving him to hear performers such as Richie Stearns, The Horseflies and the tunes of Irish fiddlers. Since Watson was a small boy, his voice resonated with a unique clarity and now Watson was strumming a guitar, a claw hammer banjo and making music with his good buddy Ben Gould. The two boys left the world of formal schooling and put together a band. The Funnest Game was born. Local music fans loved them and in 1996, the band got its first gig at Grassroots. By 2001, Watson was on the Grassroots stage as a founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show. In 2011, Watson ventured out on his own. This summer, Watson will make his way back home and once again, thrill local fans as a headliner at Grassroots in Trumansburg.
Watson lives outside of Los Angeles and is the father of a nine- year-old girl, Everley. His pride in his daughter shines as he tells how she hits just the right note and that she's already a great singer. More than that, he reflects on her good heart and how she is flourishing. When he comes this way for Grassroots, he'll get time with mom, his brothers and their families. He'll draw inspiration from the lake, the gorges and waterfalls. He's travelled a lot of places but the power and beauty of his home holds a special draw. Watson's brother, Nils, who teaches and coaches at Watkins Glen high school reflects on his brother's success in terms of being free. He admires his brother's courage in following his heart and choosing music and expression. He looks up to his kid brother and says that Willie is such a talent, a focused perfectionist who inspires adventure and potential.
When Willie was a boy, babysitting local kids in the summertime, he patiently showed them how to sew on a denim shoulder bag he had designed. Today, Watson owns a clothing company that was born from both creativity and need. Watson's slender frame made it difficult to find a proper fit. His clothingline is 100 percent handmade and Watson finds the process both creative and therapeutic. Watson continues to find great pleasure in working with his hands and sews custom jeans, jackets and dresses. After a long period touring across the nation or internationally, there is a certain solace in designing and sewing.
While Watson's Finger Lakes upbringing set the stage for his musical launching, there is no question of the impact of his mother's North Carolina roots and her faith in church and family. Marianne Watson raised her kids with a grounding framework while she urged them towards their truest selves, appreciating their interests, artistry and creativity. Listening to Watson singing "God's Got it," you can hear the old time simplicity meshed with a power of the unseen but known. On "Folk Singer 2," produced by Dave Rawlings, Watson draws the listener in with a trio of magic: instrument, singing and storytelling. The strumming of his guitar, the harmonica and the mournful story of "Gallows Pole" seep right into your bones. "Always Build Him Up and Never Knock Him Down" is a lovely homage to good action with the moving lyrics that remind one, "just remember he's some mother's precious darling."
Many local kids memorized "Wagon Wheel" from Watson's days with Old Crow. Watkins Glen's Cross-Country Runners, compliments of Ben Stamp, reworked the lyrics as the season's motivational song taking them to every competition. The song resonated on every bus ride. Watson's hometown followed Old Crow Medicine Show on the radio, at shows from east to west, and youtube, beaming to have their local kid make it big. When Watson parted ways with Old Crow Medicine Show, there was a sense of loss and fans wondered what was next. So did Watson.
Watson reflects back on his parting from Old Crow Medicine Show with self-depreciation and the voice of maturity rather than that of a young man whose rise up the ladder was perhaps a bit fast and a bit heady. The joy of the early records gave way to the pressures and conflicts of everyday life and the demands of the road. Watson speaks simply about the balancing of ego and humility and how necessary it is to be grounded. Watson said staying humble keeps connections authentic and brings a real connection when making music and performing for an audience. He said what a pleasure it is to talk honestly to a crowd. Watson knows the thrill of thousands of fans in a single venue and he knows the intimacy and beauty of a room of 50. He reflects on hard times and good times and doesn't regret any of the journey.
Watson's solo years have helped him develop a deep relationship with old songs that has earned the Watkins Glen native national and international recognition. Rolling Stone reviewed "Sampson and Delilah" as "soul-stirring" and " a gloriously buoyant rendition." National Public Radio calls "Folksinger Vol 2" a "beautiful record" and the Irish Times says "Producer David Rawlings nailed it on what makes Old Crow founder Willie Watson so special: Willie is the only one of his generation who can make me forget these songs were ever sung before."
Watson credits Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch for their perennial support of his career. From OCMS to his solo career, the duo have played a role in the production of Watson's music and Watson's rendition of the duo's song, "When a Cowboy Trades his Spurs for Wings" is a thrill.
At the Oscars this year, Watson sat in the crowd as his friends performed the Academy nominated song that won him his place on the big screen and reflected on the Hollywood hoopla surrounding him. As he observed the star worship and thought about how cool it was to be there, a larger feeling resonated with him, reminding him to keep his feet on the ground. "I mean, we're not doctors saving lives or scientists discovering the unknown." Perhaps the words Watson wrote with Keetch Secor in "We're all in This Together" are more reflective of the talented and humble folksinger.
Watson has felt such a connection to the old folk songs and the stories they tell. These years of bringing new life to songs that seem to go back to forever have resonated with his being and tell the truth of who he is. Still, there is more for Watson to say and song writing is stirring in his soul. Whatever journey Watson takes, you can be certain his music will resonate with an unmatched purity that captures the soul.