L.A. singer, songwriter and actor Willie Watson got his start as a founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show, in which he spent more than a decade finding new ways to refurbish old sounds. As a solo artist, Watson has dug ever deeper into plainspoken roots and traditional folk music, with a sound cleanly rooted in the past. But his songs are too vibrant to feel like museum pieces.
Watson just released Folksinger Vol. 2, on which he collaborates with some lofty and like-minded names: His friend and frequent collaborator David Rawlings produces, while guest stars include The Fairfield Four and Gillian Welch, among others. For source material, Watson dug into the folk-music canon to showcase songs by the likes of Rev. Gary Davis and Lead Belly. It's a beautiful record, and "Gallows Pole" encapsulates its raw, clear-eyed charms perfectly — both in the song and in its appropriately stark video.
"Francis Child called 'Gallows Pole' 'The Maid Freed From the Gallows,'" Watson writes in the album's liner notes. "Lead Belly called it 'Gallis Pole,' and I've also heard a version called 'Lord Joshuay' from Bascom Lamar Lunsford. These are only a few of the countless versions of this popular ballad. Sometimes it's a beautiful girl, sometimes a guilty son, and sometimes it's the maiden's father. In every case, Mom, Dad, sister, and brother didn't bring any money to buy the freedom of their condemned kin. They either think that death is deserved or they're just too poor to afford it. Hanging on for dear life. Pleading for one last chance at buying redemption, and at last, true love proves itself. These things really happened long ago. Maybe you stole a silver cup, or maybe you slept with the wrong person. Times ain't like they used to be."
Folksinger Vol. 2 is out now via Acony.