Willie Watson was one of the founding members of Old Crow Medicine Show. Since his departure from the band, among other projects, he has toured with the Dave Rawlings Machine, a supergroup comprised of himself, Rawlings, Gillian Welch and John Paul Jones. Rawlings, who produced records for Old Crow Medicine Show, has rejoined Watson to produce his first solo record, Folk Singer Vol. 1, a record of traditional tunes set for a May 6 release.
Watson spoke to Weld about what to expect from the solo debut, the solo show and his thumbprint on “Wagon Wheel.”
Weld: How did you meet Dave Rawlings, and how do you decide when it’s time for the Machine to hit the road?
Willie Watson: When Old Crow first moved to Nashville, well over 10 years ago at this point — I guess I’ve known Dave for about 15 or so years. He and Gillian liked what we did when we moved to Nashville, and he immediately expressed interest in recording Old Crow. And we’ve been friends ever since.
When is it time to take the Machine on the road? It’s up to Dave. He’s always gotta be working on something. Whenever him and Gillian are kind of taking a break from their thing, maybe the Machine gets together — whenever the time seems right.
Weld: I don’t think you’ve done any studio stuff with that band yet, have you?
WW: Not with this current lineup. The first lineup we did — with the guys from Old Crow and myself. But no, not yet.
Weld: He produced your new record. What was it like working with a longtime colleague on your debut?
WW: Great. Dave and I are very like-minded as far as what we want out of a studio experience and our musical taste — we’re usually on the same page. We have a lot of the same influences and we get along really well. That always helps. As far as making that record, I just did my part and Dave did his and we got it done pretty quick.
Weld: As your first solo record, I don’t know if the public knows what exactly to expect from this.
WW: Yeah, but I think the title says it all.
Weld: It does. And it’s largely standards. How did you select those songs? How did you arrive at a track listing?
WW: A lot of those are songs that I had already sorta been singing over the years. We sort of went into the studio with the idea that we would record as much of that stuff — of those old songs — as I could sort of call up, that were in my head.
So we recorded a lot. We got to a point where we sort of knew we had it — that we had enough, but we kept going. But when we had enough for the record, we knew we had some good stuff. I just sort of sang everything I could think of over the course of those sessions. I did some searching and tried to find some new songs for the record. I spent a lot of time listening to records and I figured I could dig back into my old records, into the 78s, and try to find some new songs here and there.
But a lot of times, those songs, they find me. If I’m trying — some days, if I’m really searching and trying to find new songs, nothing happens. But if I get in the car and go for a drive, and you know, put in an old cassette or something, then something just kind of pops out at me, and I’ll know I can sing that song.
Weld: Are you doing all songs in the show? Do you do any originals?
WW: There will be some originals here and there. Once in a while, I’ll do some Old Crow stuff. I have a few songs that I’ve written that may sound old.
Weld: Do you ever tire of hearing “Wagon Wheel?”
WW: I don’t really hear it that much. I usually sing it all the time. It’s kind of one those songs that — you know, you’ve gotta sing songs for a long time, so you want to make sure that they’re good songs, and they’re not going to wear on you.
But it’s a catchy song. I know that everybody that has a banjo in their band that started their band in the last 10 years is probably singing “Wagon Wheel.” But I don’t really go out that much, so I don’t hear those people doing it. But you know, when Old Crow was doing it — it’s a catchy song. And sometimes, it still gets stuck in my head.
Weld: You’ll be on the road this year solo and with Dave Rawlings Machine — which do you prefer? With the band or on your own?
WW: I like it all. I’ve always been a band guy — I’ve been in a band for a really long time. So I like traveling with people and getting onstage and making good music, but they both have their perks.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
WW: American rock bands? Well that’s tough, because most rock bands are English. Well, the Heartbreakers. And this is in no particular order: I want to say Crazy Horse, but they’re Canadian. The Grateful Dead. I don’t know — the Crickets? [Laughs] Scratch that.
Those guys that played with Chuck Berry – the piano player and all those guys that made those early records with Chuck. Elvis’s early band — the Tennessee Three or something like that, whatever those guys were called.
Weld: That’s four.
WW: I wish I could just say Crazy Horse.
Weld: I mean, the Band always gets a pass because of Levon Helm, so…
WW: Oh my God, I want to say the Band, but they’re Canadian, too. All right, let’s say Crazy Horse.
Willie Watson will perform at Bottletree Cafe on Wednesday, April 2. Doors open at 8 p.m., while the show begins at 9 p.m. Philos Moore will open. Tickets are $10. On Tuesday, April 1, Watson will be performing at John Paul White’s 116 E. Mobile Street venue in Florence, Ala. Tickets for that show are also $10.