Willie Watson is a folk singer out of Watkins Glen, New York, who, after stumbling upon a Leadbelly record at age 12, has come to produce his own old-time mountain music. His brand of folk country blends a heavy amount of bluegrass and string band styles, taking rhythms from the latter and banjo leads from the prior. This month he released his debut album, which comes off as classic and clean as the country that inspired it.
Willie Watson’s Folk Singer Vol. 1 starts of with a folksy country tune called “Midnight Special” that couples his awkward, somewhat restrained voice with a familiar sounding acoustic guitar, giving an antiquated and relic sort of feeling. The bareness and stripped quality of the song is homely and welcoming, but his vibrato on certain words, especially “me,” sounds insufferable and annoying.
“Mexican Cowboy” is a standout track on the album, and it was obvious right away. The banjo work is phenomenal and holds its own merit as a reason to give the record a chance. Watson’s singing in this song, and even that vibrato, feel appropriate and comfortably blended. ”James Alley Blues” is a beautiful old-timey ballad, slowing the album down from the constant jangle of banjos. Instead, a lonely sounding harmonica accompanies his two-step acoustic guitar riff. “Rock Salt and Nails” follows, keeping the morose tone steady and setting a whiskey-bar blues atmosphere.
The album closes with “Keep It Clean,” which features some of the best vocal moments on the album. This track will leave you wanting more Watson and will assure multiple future listens. Additionally, the lyrics tell a funny country story, which most will agree is the most redeeming and amusing aspect of the genre.
The production value of this album is noteworthy. Time and consideration ensure that the little instrumentation present sounds clear, natural and full. However, one complaint regarding the mix is that there is a huge lack of any high end through most of the songs. While the banjo occasionally fills that void, there tends to be nothing there, which is unappealing as it leaves nothing in the “ear-candy” range, resulting in a sound that is kind of bland and dull.
Folk Singer Vol. 1 is a stripped down, bluegrass inspired, old-time, mountain country album. And if you’re not afraid of the loud banjo twang and the squeal of toothless mountain folk (though Watson is certainly not toothless), then paddle faster so you can get yourself a copy.