“I always long for those old times,” says the ex-Old Crow Medicine Show musician, who appears in Berkeley this week to promote his new recording “Folk Singer Vol. 1.”
The sepia-toned collection of blues and bluegrass curiosities – including “Stewball,” “Rock Salt and Nails” and Land Norris’ double entendre “Kitty Puss” – was produced by Gillian Welch’s creative partner David Rawlings (with whom he performs in the Dave Rawlings Machine) and released on the couple’s Acony Records imprint.
Watson’s tinny, Victrola-scratched singing voice suits the dusty material.
Watson grew up on Nirvana and The Pixies, and loved their outsider lyrics and dark themes. “But then I heard Doc Boggs and guys singing songs like ‘Kitty Puss,’ and I was like ‘whoa!’” he says, explaining the songs on “Folk Singer.” He adds, “I found those same themes and feelings in a lot of that old-time music, too.”
These days, Watson, 34, stays home when he’s not on tour. He was with Old Crow when the band traveled by train across America with Mumford & Sons and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros on 2011’s “Railroad Revival Tour” (as seen in the 2012 documentary “Big Easy Express”).
He says, “I really enjoyed the whole aspect of being thrown back in time, and riding those rails like a hobo,” although he quit the band over creative differences shortly thereafter.
Needing to decompress, Watson retreated to his Topanga Canyon cabin for two years while he plotted his next career move: “Just me, my guitar, my banjo, and my record player,” says the diehard vinyl collector.
He followed a simple daily ritual: “Coffee. Cigarettes. Sing and play. It’s what I dearly love, and I never get tired of it. Even though the cabin fever comes and goes. When I’m gone for a few weeks on the road, I’m like, ‘Get me home! I just want to be alone again!’”
Before he joined Old Crow, Watson’s existence was even simpler. He painted in oil and acrylics and hammered together furniture he required: “I mean, anything you could think of, A table. A box for my road gear. If I’d wanted a hot tub, I probably would have built one. And I used to sew a lot – I made pants and jackets all the time, even made a couple of dresses for my ex-wife,” he says.
IF YOU GO
Where: Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Tickets: $17 to $19
Contact: (510) 644-2020, www.thefreight.org