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In 'Gallows Pole,' Willie Watson Makes The Past Sound Vibrant

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. 2is out now via Acony.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)