Willie Watson Slings Folk Standards at Great American Music Hall

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Willie Watson brought his dry sense of humor and an arsenal of folk classics to the Great American Music Hall Tuesday night in a multi-instrumental, one man show. Hot on the heels of his role in the new Coen brothers film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the folk singer has been touring at a breakneck pace, downing soup, and vitamin C packets, and denying the existence of a cold.

By the time he reached San Francisco, Watson had already played six nights straight, working his way from Montana through the Pacific Northwest with co-headliner Charlie Parr. On this tour, the two are bridging a generational gap between folk fans on opposite ends of the spectrum – the witty and sardonic Parr bringing out old school Deadheads and Marin County hippies while Watson’s fans – many familiar with his days as a member of Old Crow Medicine Show – represent yet another folk revival.

Since parting ways with Old Crow Medicine Show, Watson has turned out two solo albums, Folksinger Vol. 1 & 2. Produced by David Rawlings, Watson’s solo records mark a return to traditional folk music for the artist and reimagine well-known standards and nearly forgotten gems for a modern audience.

Tuesday night, Watson shared his interpretations of “Keep it Clean,” “Samson and Delilah,” and “John Henry” in addition to some playful banter with the crowd. Despite a generous peppering of gray hairs, there’s a smirking, boyish charm to Watson’s shtick, and his performance was equal parts self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation.

“I’m not a real cowboy, but I play one on TV. . . for about 4 minutes,” he joked, foppishly putting on his hat. Watson plays a sweet singing gunslinger known as “The Kid” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and performs the film’s theme, “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” with costar Tim Blake Nelson. While he has contributed musically to previous Coen brothers projects, Buster Scruggs was Watson’s on-screen debut.

“I really had no idea how big the role was,” he said, “but they kept calling me a principal.” In preparation for the part, Watson had to brush up on his horsemanship, sprout a crop of dramatic facial hair, and most importantly, practice his revolver spin.

“After a couple days, my finger was getting really sore,” he remarked, whipping out his phone to share a clip of his signature move over a bowl of pho at a Vietnamese joint around the corner from the venue. We shared a laugh about the recent influx of singer/songwriter/Western actors, and when asked who would win in a fight between Ryan Bingham’s chest branding character on Yellowstone and Watson’s “The Kid,” it was no contest.

“Me, yeah, totally me.”

Though much of his music explores morose themes (see “Gallows Pole” and “Rock Salt and Nails”), Watson himself is funny and full of dry sarcasm. His stage show is part confessional, part standup, and most of the laughs he gets are at his own expense. He plays the narcissist with a Woody Allen flair and just enough gleam in his eye to suggest that he doesn’t believe a word of it. But then again, maybe he does.

When we set up the interview his response was, “That’s all fine, I love talking about myself. . . Kidding. . . Kind of.”

Photos by Gina Teichert

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