If all you know of old-time mountain music is what you hear at East Coast nightclubs, you might be forgiven for thinking it's nothing but good-time party music. Bands such as Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avett Brothers and Uncle Earl, while spearheading the recent string-band revival, have tended to serve up only one thin slice of that musical pie: up-tempo tunes and dance numbers. Another side of the heritage -- characterized by slower, storytelling songs -- has largely been neglected. As a co-founder of Old Crow Medicine Show, Willie Watson contributed to that situation.
"When we first started to play out, we tried all kinds of stuff," says Watson, 34. "But we found very quickly that people responded more to these dance numbers. 'Gee,' we said, 'they really like these fast tunes,' so we became the band the audience wanted us to be. The shows became a big party; people got really drunk and it got wild."
But with his new solo album, "Folk Singer Vol. 1," Watson means to redress that imbalance. "That's fun," he says, "but my solo show is definitely different. It's more of a listening experience. I want to take people down a path through all the aspects of life."
Watson is reluctant to discuss why he left Old Crow Medicine Show in 2011. All he'll say is that the members had grown apart and that "it was time to move on and find a new situation." At first he wasn't sure what that new situation would be. Should he form a new band in the Old Crow style? Should he become a solo singer-songwriter? Or should he approach traditional music from a different angle? At that point, Watson was living in Los Angeles, and he decided to test the waters by playing solo shows with only his guitar or banjo.
"It was scary," Watson admits over the phone from his L.A. home, "which was weird because I'd been in bands for years and years. But playing solo and playing in a band are two totally different things. I felt like I was 16 again. When I was in the band, I had a place where I fit, and I was comfortable there. When I perform alone, I have to do everything; I have to try to be a little band all by myself. The percussion, the chords, the melody, the vocals, the instrumental interludes -- they all have to come from me."
In those early solo shows, Watson played songs he had written for Old Crow, as well as new ones penned after leaving the band. But he also played a lot of traditional numbers, such as Leadbelly's "Midnight Special," to which audiences responded warmly. He enjoyed the old songs, too, but was reluctant to commit to them because he felt intimidated by what he calls "the singer-songwriter expectation."
"You sing a song at a party," he explains, "and some girl likes it. She says, 'Did you write that?' and if you say yes, she likes it even more. And it might not even be a very good song, but because it supposedly expresses yourself, she likes it even more. But if you sing 'Midnight Special' and she likes it just as much, she'll ask if you wrote that one. If you say no, she'll be disappointed, even though she liked it just as much as the first one before she had that little piece of information. That makes no sense to me."
But by the time Dave Rawlings, who produced Old Crow's breakthrough albums, 2004's "Old Crow Medicine Show" and 2006's "Big Iron World," heard one of Watson's early Los Angeles shows, Watson's confidence had grown by leaps and bounds. Rawlings and his longtime partner and collaborator, Gillian Welch, invited him to make a solo album at their Woodland Studio in Nashville.
Watson arrived to find the studio in the last stage of a renovation and even helped Welch and Rawlings install floor tiles. But before long, the microphones were turned back on, and Watson was invited to sound-check the equipment. He impulsively chose to sing "Kitty Puss," from a 1920s recording by Georgia banjo player Land Norris. That test run ended up on the album.
"Kitty Puss" takes its place among songs as familiar as "Midnight Special" and "Stewball" as well as those as obscure as Gus Cannon's 1930 "Bring It With You When You Come" and Rabbit Brown's 1927 "James Alley Blues." All 10 tunes, picked by Rawlings from the nearly 30 recorded, feature Watson alone, playing only acoustic guitar or banjo.
When Watson plucks his banjo behind a story ballad such as "Mexican Cowboy" (also known as "The Hills of Mexico" or "The Buffalo Skinners"), he sounds more than a little like the recently departed Pete Seeger, another spindly banjo player who liked to sing the old songs by himself. Unlike Watson, however, Seeger knew Leadbelly and a lot of the other traditional singers personally.
"It blows my mind that not that long ago you could sit next to Mississippi John Hurt, talk to him and shake his hand," Watson says. "Pete, Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk all got to do that. For my generation, they seem further away, mythic almost.
"But when I sing those songs, I feel like I'm part of that community, and the community goes on, even if the individuals haven't. Pete is definitely a role model for me. He never got caught up in those expectations to only sing your own songs. He'd get up there and sing five Leadbelly songs in a row."
Watson has little patience for purists who think that if you don't sound just like Robert Johnson or Dock Boggs, you're not doing the song correctly. Instead, Watson takes his cue from Johnson and Boggs themselves, who would take piano songs and play them on guitar or banjo with new verses. They weren't copying other singers, and they weren't writing songs from scratch.
Just like Watson now, they were making the old songs fit their own personalities.
Appearing Saturday at Gypsy Sally’s, 3401 K St. NW. 202-333-7700. www.gypsysallys.com. Show starts at 9 p.m. $12-$15.