"Willie Watson Folk Singer Vol.2" Goes Long on Authenticity

During the great folk music revival of the 1960s how many buyers of Peter, Paul & Mary's stunning debut album knew who was the Reverend Gary Davis, writer of the apocalyptic side 2 opener "If I Had My Way"? Probably very few. In those days you'd have to visit the local library to find out who he was, assuming you paid attention to label credits in the first place.

The 38 year old folksinger Willie Watson, who grew up in Watkins Glen, N.Y. not far from Ithaca, wants listeners to know from where these songs come, so includes on the inner sleeve a backgrounder for each song, including for "Samson and Delilah" the album's opener (the same song PP&M call "If I Had My Way"), in which he's backed by the gospel group The Fairfield Four who "mainstreamed" thanks to their appearance in the Coen Brothers' movie "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" but who were well-known in audiophile circles back in the early '90s thanks to the group's superb-sounding Warner Brothers album Standing In the Safety Zone (Warner Brothers 26945-2), which deserves a vinyl reissue (it was recorded to tape, mixed to digital and released only on CD).

Watson, a founding member in 1998 of the Old Crow Medicine Show string band (still performing with some new participants) went solo in the Fall of 2011, releasing Vol. 1 in the Spring of 2014. This follow-up, released last September, includes many familiar folk "chestnuts" well-known to those who grew up during that '60's era folk revival but perhaps not to the younger audience that will consume this superb-sounding all-analogue release on David Rawlings' Acony label. It's also available on CD, but the best way to listen is surely on the AAA LP.

Watson covers versions of "Gallows Pole", "Dry Bones", "John Henry", "When My Baby Left Me," and "Take This Hammer" among others, bringing to them an authenticity and honesty you might have thought couldn't possibly have survived the millennium, but you'll need no convincing listening to this record.

Mostly you'll come away grateful that this music is being so well cared for so it can be handed down to yet another generation—especially to today's youngsters for whom authenticity and craftsmanship, musical and otherwise, seems to be in such short supply.

Watson inhabits these songs. He's not traveling on the surface looking for a way in, or parroting the recorded versions he's heard. He backs himself on guitar, banjo, harmonica and slide guitar, with The Fairfield Four backing on 3 tracks along with Old Crow's bassist Morgan Jahnig on one track and Punch Brothers' bassist Paul Kowert and Gillian Welch on drums on another.

Side 2's opener "On the Road Again", is the one with Jahnig and Welch, along with The Fairfield Four. The group's vocals are arrayed on the stereo stage so convincingly first play may get your heart racing. Are they in your room? Producer Rawlings created lovely woodwind arrangements for two tunes that are carefully tucked into the mixes.

The sonics here are 100% of what you like and hope every record you buy might sound like. The naturalness and transparency will slay you but that's really only a quarter as important as the fact that you'll hear songs you may have heard a hundred times and think you've never before heard them. Okay, maybe that's slightly hyperbolic but Watson makes even "John Henry" come to life. In the notes he asks you to look for him and you just might. The record is well-pressed on standard weight vinyl at QRP and the paper on cardboard jacket befits what's inside.

isaacrivera's picture

I have all 3 LPs currently available from ACONY records. All 3 are among some of the better pressed, produced and recorded records in my 2000+ collection. Musically as well, they are jewels. Folk Singer Vol.2 has an uncanny depth and authenticity of feeling, as if mr. Watson was truly embodying the stories that he is performing. I only wish that Vol.1 was available in AAA vinyl as well. ACONY has recently reissued The Harrow & The Harvest AAA, so there is hope. I look forward to more exceptional releases from this label.

Michael Fremer's picture
Is reviewed on this site!
isaacrivera's picture

That review tipped me to ACONY records. I enjoyed The Harrow and The Harvest so much I purchased the other two LPs and I could not be happier with having done so. Unfortunately, The Harrow and The Harvest copy I got initially suffered from a short, occasional scratchy noise on the left channel. I pointed it out to them and they immediately sent a second copy which was flawless. Great label, great service.

RCZero's picture

I picked this up at B&N after seeing it was:

I didn’t realize this was a modern release, but the liner notes tipped me off when it mentions Eminem in the discussion of one of the songs! I thought it was a re-release of something old, until then, thinking “wow this sounds great, they don’t make them like this anymore... How refreshing to realize later this is a recent album, and sounds FANTASTIC!

How can we get a AAA album of The Fairfield Four? This album makes me want more of them, being from a family with roots in the gospel sound they are so close to.