Formerly part of the Old Crow Medicine Show and currently a member of the David Rawlings Machine, the grainy-voiced LA-based folkie follows up his solo debut, Folksinger Vol.1 with an appropriately sequentially titled sequel.
Produced by Rawlings, again he digs deep into American folk music for his material, some of which will be familiar, others less so. Taking the latter first, the second track on the album is a solid reading of ‘Gallows Pole’, here arranged to include a woodwind ensemble to complement his stark acoustic picking and harmonica. The number has recently been recorded by Bella Gaffney and, coincidentally, another UK folk singer, Kim Greenwood, has also just released an album featuring another traditional chestnut (of UK derivation, actually) included here, ‘The Cuckoo Bird’. Both give it an urgent, driving treatment, though Watson emphasises on Appalachian colours with his banjo accompaniment and he’s on banjo again for the third of the much covered songs, a nimble-fingered fast paced flurry through ‘John Henry’.
Gospel legends The Fairfield Four lend their voices to three numbers, the first being traditional album opener ‘Samson and Delilah’, Watson fingerpicking acoustic while they quartet join in on the chorus. They return for ‘On The Road Again’ which, also featuring Gillian Welch on drums and former Medicine Show colleague Morgan Jahnig on bass, Watson says he set out to create the sound and spirit of a 1926 dance party in the manner of the version he heard by the Grateful Dead. The invitation should be taken up. Their third crooning contribution is on album closer, a suitably world weary and resigned reading of Ledbetter’s ‘Take This Hammer’.
Moving back to the third track, a worn and weathered, version of Furry Lewis’s ‘When My Baby Left Me’’ sees Paul Kowert from the Punch Brothers on bass and a percussive effect that sounds like wood creaking. Though often credited to Doc Watson, it was Thomas Clarence Ashley who first released a version of the traditional African-American work song, ‘Walking Boss’, in 1961, and it’s he who gets the nod here in a fine, dry fingerpicked interpretation that sees Watson breaking out the harmonica again.
Though better known for writing ‘How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?’ Virginia fiddle player and bluesman Blind Alfred Reed recorded ‘Always Lift Him Up And Never Knock Him Down’ two years earlier in 1927, Watson’s version recalling those early coffee house years of Bob Dylan. Though co-credited to Alan Lomax, the remaining number is another from Ledbetter, Watson taking to slide and falsetto for the classic dying song ‘Leavin’ Blues’, adding to a list of fine versions that include, among others, ones by Davey Graham, Rory Gallagher, (when he was with Taste) Johnny Winter.
There’s been a spate of young musicians revisiting the folk, blues and country music of the 60s; not all of them pull off the authenticity, but Watson does so without breaking sweat.
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Artist’s website: https://www.williewatson.com/home
‘Take This Hammer’ – live: