Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sean Watkins has long been known for his work as one-third of the Grammy Award-winning Nickel Creek and, more recently, for helming, with sister Sara, the itinerant, genre-hopping Watkins Family Hour ensemble. But in the last year he has more assertively – and impressively – taken on the role of solo artist. What To Fear is a follow-up to 2014’s acclaimed All I Do Is Lie, which had been Watkins’ first solo effort in nearly a decade, ten years that had been jammed with collaborative projects and a herculean amount of touring. On his own, Watkins displays tremendous warmth and soulfulness as a singer, a refreshing candor and humor as a lyricist, and prodigious skill as an arranger. And he doesn’t merely stick with the familiar: On What To Fear, he bolsters an acoustic lineup with a rock rhythm section, bringing drama and drive to these new tracks while keeping intact the emotional intimacy of all the stories he is telling.
As a writer, Watkins deftly juggles the observational and the autobiographical, convincingly taking on the personalities of others – a stalker, a preacher, a cynical newscaster – and then juxtaposing them with a voice that is clearly his own. Watkins’ singing unites disparate narrative threads; he’s disarmingly honest and sympathetic, no matter whom the character he is channeling might be. Similarly, he has managed to take the work of his acoustic collaborators – -the gifted young Northern Californian trio, Bee Eaters – with the robust bass and drums combo of Matt Chamberlain and Mike Elizondo.
Unlike most of his peers, Watkins has been a performer for more than 25 years. He was a mere 12 years old when he played his first gig in Nickel Creek, with sister Sara on fiddle and Chris Thile on mandolin, at a San Diego pizza parlor. The trio’s star ascended quickly; within a few years, a progressive bluegrass following grew into a large mainstream audience. Its 2002 album, This Side, garnered a Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy. Since then, Watkins has released discs with Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman as the duo Fiction Family and with fellow guitarist Glen Phillips as Works Progress Administration, an eight-piece band featuring a stellar lineup of fellow L.A. session players. He also managed to release three solo efforts along the way. The Watkins Family Hour began as an informal event at Largo, where Sean and Sara could carouse on stage with an ever-changing group of like-minded friends. A core group of musicians became a regular part of the festivities, including pianist Benmont Tench, bassist Sebastian Steinberg and singer Fiona Apple. Together they recorded The Watkins Family Hour disc last year and took their convivial show on the road. What To Fear includes guest-star turns from Sara, as well as Tench, Steinberg and Petra Haden. In fact, the instrumental “Local Honey” was originally written as a kind of Family Hour theme song, for the live show and the group’s podcast.
Having friends and family on board has long been a hallmark of every Watkins project. He’s also been regularly invited to record and tour with many other musicians, among them Jackson Browne and Lyle Lovett. But What To Fear is all about Sean Watkins himself, front and center, as his songwriting matures and his persona as a solo performer blooms.
“For the longest time I didn’t feel comfortable in that role, “Watkins admits. “I loved being in bands. But now that I’ve done songs that I really like– I’m proud of my last one, and even prouder of this one –that makes a big difference when you’re traveling solo, stepping on stage by yourself. It’s fun to go out on stage – anything is possible. It’s gone from feeling daunting to being hopeful and free.”
— Michael Hill
Looking like a man from leaner and meaner times, Willie Watson steps on stage with a quiet gravitas. But, when he opens his mouth and lets out that high lonesome vocal, you can hear him loud and clear.
His debut solo album, Folk Singer Vol. 1, was produced by David Rawlings at Woodland Sound Studios, the studio he co-owns with associate producer Gillian Welch in Nashville, TN, over the course of a pair of two-day sessions, for their own Acony Records label. The album spans ten songs from the American folk songbook ranging from standards like “Midnight Special,” “Mexican Cowboy” and Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blues” to the more obscure, like Memphis Slim’s 12-bar blues, “Mother Earth,” Gus Cannon and the Jug Stompers’ “Bring it With You When You Come,” Land Norris’ double-entendre kids chant, “Kitty Puss” and St. Louis bluesman Charley Jordan’s sing-song “Keep It Clean.” Like the music, Willie can be murderous, bawdy or lustful, sometimes in the course of a single song, with a sly sense of humor that cuts to the quick. He counters a masterful bravado with the tragic fragility of one who has been wounded.
“There’s a lot of weight in the way Willie performs,” says Rawlings, longtime friend and producer of Watson’s previous band, Old Crow Medicine Show. “He’s had some tragedy in his life, which has informed his art. There’s an emotional edge to what he does because of who he is as a human being. Willie is the only one of his generation who can make me forget these songs were ever sung before.”