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Live Review: Willie Watson @ Rams Head on Stage — 4/21/24

Plenty of talented songwriters have put in their time only to exit the profession all together, looking to enjoy whatever else life might have to offer.

But sometimes their musician friends, or perhaps famous movie directors, or maybe even the songs themselves come calling, and hiatus gives way to a refreshed desire and renewed vision for sharing music.

Willie Watson has said to hell with songwriting, recording, and performing on a couple different occasions, but the 44-year-old banjo and guitar picker from New York’s Southern Tier has been drawn back to music more than once thanks to the influence of the creative people in his circle.

To the delight of many, he’s currently out on tour, including a recent date at Rams Head on Stage, and is set to release what will be just his third solo album.

At Rams Head On Stage on April 21, Watson impressed and charmed a lively Annapolis audience with his own songs and reworked traditional ones, too, in a reminder — perhaps even for himself — that his instrumental skills, his extraordinary voice and his informed perspective are modern-day treasures for fans of roots and folk music.

Perhaps the most distinguishable character on the early recordings by Old Crow Medicine Show, a band he co-founded in the late 1990s, Watson confided in the room from start to finish, providing a humorous window into his fruitful albeit wishy-washy approach to songwriting and illustrating his burning out on tour alongside Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua as an original member of the wildly successful band.

“Ketch — he likes to talk to people. He talks to everyone. I was scared … didn’t know what to do. … I found myself right outta that band,” he laughed.

He summarized the experience positively — “It was fantastic. We had big hits.” — and he brought the room up to speed, that he left the group about 13 years ago.

Listen to Willie Watson’s second album, Folksinger Vol. 2, via Spotify:

But, as Willie pointed out, his own fascination with old time music and songwriting had begun before he met Secor and Fuqua, and it has only grown stronger since.

“I’d written a lot of songs prior to that — the first song I ever wrote was on my own,” Willie spoke of his early days scooting around Watkins Glen and Ithaca, where the old time and bluegrass scene was and still is robust. As hungry Finger Lakes teenagers, he and his good friend and bass player Ben Gould formed a band they named The Funnest Game.

“Later on, I’d get frustrated with myself,” he described his initial writing efforts post-OCMS. “I’d say, ‘that’s stupid.’”

Though he had drifted away from music to some degree, he’s said in interviews that he always craved the human interaction of performing live. And even if that wasn’t the case, powerful forces essentially retrieved him — like when he was invited to star in the Coen Brothers’ 2018 film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Last year, Watson officially reunited in the studio with Secor and the Old Crow crew for “Miles Away,” a single featured on OCMS’s eight album, Jubilee; and even though he’s no longer a member of the band, he’s been its guest on stage numerous times since he departed.

The night of April 21 in Annapolis, Willie was joined by Gould, the original bassist for Old Crow in its first year and who after all these decades is still tight with his longtime pal. Rounding out the trio was Sami Braman, the acclaimed fiddler for The Onlies, a Seattle-based sting band that on the two days prior entertained crowds at the fifth annual Baltimore Old Time Music Festival.

Those on hand in Naptown shouted requests or cracked jokes along with Willie. He heard at least one call for OCMS tunes that he penned, offering up a stirring take on “Poor Man,” a classic from the band’s 2004 self-titled album.

“I don’t usually talk about the show during the show, but I’m figuring this show out as I go,” folks giggled as his eyed widened. “It’s scrappy. I like it that way ‘cause I get to do whatever the fuck I want.”

He laughed at himself, too, after attempting to gently toss a pick to someone at the table in front of him and instead bouncing it off the wrong person.

“Folk musicians trying to be rockers! Throwing stuff into the crowd, then being like ‘oops, I’m sorry!’”

Fans heard a thoughtful mix of tunes, including tracks recorded to Folksinger Vol. 1 in 2014 and Folksinger Vol. 2 in 2017, as well as new songs in the works like a moving piece he wrote for his wife titled “Only Real Love That I’ve Ever Known.”

Revisit Willie Watson’s first studio album, Folksinger Vol. 1, via Spotify:

“I’m terrified of this record,” Watson said. “I hope it does good. I just want to let you know how scared I am.”

He leveled with those on hand, declaring that folk music and being a folk musician was nowhere near as hip 10 to 20 years ago as it’s considered today.

“I was writing these bad songs,” Willie put his hand on his face, retrospective disbelief. “It was not a cool thing.”

But, with his new batch of songs and a bit more wisdom, Watson proved this past weekend that his sound and his voice are nothing short of vital to modern folk and roots music.

And, through all the goofing, he made it clear just how crucial the night was to him.

“I’m so glad you guys seem to like all these songs. It means a lot to me to sing them.”

Below are home-rolled/developed/scanned 35mm film shots of Willie Watson along with the evening’s opening act, Skribe, performing at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, Maryland, the night of April 21, 2024. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Ryan Vock.

Willie Watson @ Rams Head On Stage Annapolis MD 04.21.24 35mm Film Photo by Casey Ryan Vock


Skribe @ Rams Head On Stage Annapolis MD 04.21.24 35mm Film Photo by Casey Ryan Vock