For nearly two decades, Willie Watson has made modern folk music rooted in older traditions. He’s a folksinger in the classic sense: a singer, storyteller, and traveller, with a catalog of songs that bridge the gap between the past and present. On Folksinger Vol. 2, he acts as a modern interpreter of older songs, passing along his own version of the music that came long before him.
Southern gospel. Railroad songs. Delta blues. Irish fiddle tunes. Appalachian music. Folksinger Vol. 2 makes room for it all. Produced by David Rawlings, the album carries on a rich tradition in folk music: the sharing and swapping of old songs. Long ago, the 11 compositions that appear on Folksinger Vol. 2 were popularized by artists like Leadbelly, Reverend Gary Davis, Furry Lewis, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford. The songs don’t actually belong to those artists, though. They don’t belong to anyone. Instead, they’re part of the folk canon, passed from generation to generation by singers like Watson.
And what a singer he is. With a quick vibrato and rich range, he breathes new life into classic songs like “Samson and Delilah,” one of several songs featuring harmonies from gospel quartet the Fairfield Four. He’s a balladeer on “Gallows Pole,” whose melancholy melodies are echoed by the slow swells of a four-piece woodwind ensemble, and a bluesman on “When My Baby Left Me,” accompanying himself with sparse bursts of slide guitar. “Dry Bones” finds him crooning and hollering over a bouncing banjo, while “Take This Hammer” closes the album on a penitent note, with Watson singing to the heavens alongside a congregation of Sunday morning soul singers.
Arriving three years after Folksinger Vol. 1 — his first release since parting ways with the Old Crow Medicine Show, whose platinum-selling music helped jumpstart the 21st century folk revival — Vol. 2 expands Watson’s sound while consolidating his strengths. Several singers and sidemen make appearances here, including Gillian Welch, the Punch Brothers’ Paul Kowert, and Old Crow bandmate Morgan Jahnig. Even so, Watson has never sounded more commanding, more confident, more connected to the music that inspires him.
“I’m not trying to prove any point here,” he insists, “and I’m not trying to be a purist. There’s so much beauty in this old music, and it affects me on a deep level. It moves me and inspires me. I heard Leadbelly singing with the Golden Gate Quartet and it sounded fantastic, and I thought, ‘I want to do that.’ I heard the Grateful Dead doing their version of ‘On the Road Again,’ and it sounded like a dance party in 1926, and I wanted to do that, too. That’s the whole reason I ever played music in the first place — because it looked and sounded like it was going to be a lot of fun.”
Nodding to the past without resurrecting it, Willie Watson turns Folksinger Vol. 2 into something much more than an interpretation of older songs. The album carries on the spirit of a time nearly forgotten. It taps into the rich core of roots music. It furthers the legacy of American folk. And perhaps most importantly, it shows the full range of Willie Watson’s artistry, matching his instrumental and vocal chops with a strong appreciation for the songs that have shaped not only a genre, but an entire country.
The Harmaleighs honestly craft poetic, passionate, and powerful songs cut from a pastiche of indie, folk, pop and Americana. In January 2015, The Harmaleighs—Haley Grant [lead vocals, guitar] and Kaylee Jasperson [bass, harmonies]—embarked on something of a modern odyssey in support of their independent full-length debut, Pretty Picture, Dirty Brush. The band-mates and partners got rid of their Nashville apartment, put everything they owned in a storage unit, bought a van, equipped it with a bed, and hit the road with their 8-month-old pug Gus sleeping on the dash for the next nine months. The trials, tribulations, and triumphs of this trek would ultimately inspire their upcoming EP, Hiraeth, to be released on May 5.
“Hiraeth is a Welsh word that we stumbled upon while we were on tour,” says Kaylee. “It basically means, ‘Longing for a home.’ It’s a feeling of rootlessness and homesickness that we started to collectively feel around month six. By the end, we had burned out.”
“Even when we visited Nashville, we would be staying in a Walmart parking lot,” sighs Haley. “That’s where the whole concept came from. It’s the basis for this body of work.”
The lead track from the EP is the ethereal “Birds Of A Feather”, which is out now via all digital outlets. “I wrote the song about a friend who was going through a tough time with a relationship ending,” says Haley. “She was explaining to me what exactly was happening and said ‘I’m just convenient for her.’ That specific sentence stuck in my head for a couple weeks and sparked the idea for the entire song.”
The Harmaleighs’ debut LP Pretty Picture, Dirty Brush received accolades from American Songwriter, Songwriter UK and more and Spotify featured “I Keep Ticking On” on its coveted Folk Pop playlist, amassing millions of streams and counting. The duo spent the bulk of 2016 “working regular jobs and saving up money” for their next musical chapter. They hit the studio with producer Paul Moak [Mat Kearney, Caitlyn Smith] and recorded the six songs on Hiraeth in just one week. As a result of the previous two years, their signature “Indie Americana” sound further solidified.
“Our last record was very folk-pop,” says Kaylee. “At that point, we were going through transitions and really trying to figure out what we wanted to be. When we finished that marathon tour and regrouped, we got the chance to decide who we are as a band. We wanted to utilize more electric instruments and go more indie pop with storytelling at the core. All of Paul’s productions are different. That was the allure of working with him. He helped us step up and define our style. This is really the first time we’re being true to ourselves.”
On “Lady Brain”, delicate electric guitars entwine with Haley’s hypnotic and heavenly delivery before crashing into an unforgettable refrain. “I was watching Orange is The New Black, and in one scene the main character Piper says, ‘Well, I’m going to use my lady brain and think really hard,’” Haley recalls. “I thought it was so fucking funny. I kept it in the back of my head. It’s a bit of a sarcastic song.”
Then, there’s “Mouthful of Cigarettes” which twists and turns through a bluesy lead line until eventually culminating on a powerful proclamation, “I am a fire without any wood.”
“I was sitting at a bar in Portland on month six of our tour,” Haley continues. “There was an ashtray full of cigarettes, and I was having this moral dilemma in my head. I thought, ‘What if I put all of that in my mouth and swallow the burning cigarettes because there are flames and maybe I won’t be burning out anymore?’ I thought it might spark the flame again.”
The flame has been sparked with Hiraeth and their journey really begins now…