CD Reviews

BILLY WATSON: A 25 Year Retrospective

by T.E. MattoxNovember 2023

“After the Pandemic I really thought things were going to be over for me.” Billy Watson says. “I didn’t want to cut another record, with hiring everybody and the artwork… everything was haywire. I don’t have that many gigs; there aren’t that many gigs anymore. It’s rough for musicians and it’s rough for blues guys and especially harmonica blues guys. The world is full of singers and guitarists…they love that stuff, but when it comes to blues harmonica—if you don’t sound like someone else, you’re not really popular. So, I decided to just take my favorite songs from all of my other 11 records and put them into one. I got together with my art guy, and we came up with a really cool, fun little CD.”

From 11 albums, how did you pare it down to just 17 tracks?
I just picked the songs that were my absolute favorites—that I thought my performance was good on, you know? Since I thought this is going to be my last record and I’m not going to do this anymore, I thought hey, the hell with it, I’m just going to pick my favorites.

A quarter of a century is a lot of material to comb through.
You would think after 25 years. I’ve been playing close to 30 years now and it’s been a battle. And it’s my own fault, I’m not blaming anyone else but myself…it’s just how I’m wired, you know? I’m an East Coast guy and the son of a fire chief and I don’t like taking any guff, you know? But when you’re like that, you become a lightning rod for various “guffery.” Mr. and Mrs. Guff find you and give you shit.

Please talk a little about some specific tracks, like “Sound Advice” with James Harman.
Oh yeah, that was the first time we got to hire James to be on a record and he wrote that song right on the spot. It was incredible and a lot of fun to watch him do that… “give me a pen and paper and I’ll write one right now!” It was so neat to watch James Harman, a wordsmith and a poet, and you know he never considered himself a harmonica player. He thought of himself as a singer and an entertainer. He could write songs on the fly, and they were all excellent; they weren’t cheeseball. He really inspired me, when you get onstage after a guy like that…I feel like a cheeseball! But James was a big mentor for me.

Viet Nam?
You know, when I was a little kid I remember the Vietnam War because I lost a babysitter in 1969. My dad and mom were really sad, and they were trying to explain to me what the Vietnam War was, what guerilla fighters were, but I was too young to understand—I was only five—yet, I vividly remember that. I have these strange memories that haunt me.

You include one cover, “Murmur Low”
Oh, that’s a good one. It’s Arthur “Big Boy” Spires, and that’s the only one that’s a cover on there, but I don’t do it like the record.

“Elevator Music in a UFO”
That’s one of my favorites. That could be played on a jazz radio station. Jonny Viau and Nathan James really made that.

You have a lot of friends on this retrospective. Can you fill us in on the International Silver String Submarine Band? I know Junior Watson is on the track “Playhouse.”
Junior Watson, another mentor. He tells it like it is. He’s a no-nonsense character. He taught me so much about blues, and it was an honor and quite a dream-come-true to perform with him. He’s like an older brother or an uncle who tells you how it is and teaches it that way. He brings me to another level, and I try to return the favor. We set each other off.

The list of Submariners continues to grow, Thomas Yearsley, Jonny Viau, Stephen Hodges, Troy Sandow, Adrian Demain, Nathan James…
Every musician on my records has been a huge influence, and they have always been there for me. I try to hire different guys so they don’t get sick of me. My dream is to hire every one of them at once… All of those guys are improvisational masters and that’s my thing. It’s imperative that the guys who play with me know how to improvise and know how to follow the leader. Follow the bouncing ball. Not to knock anyone but some musicians that play cover music, are simply painting by numbers. That’s not for me. When I play a solo in blues, it’s like surfing a wave. I want to have fun; I don’t want to be stuck doing the same thing every night. I’ve already got a day job.

Nathan James not only plays with you, but he also worked on a lot of your recording sessions.
Nathan was James Harman’s favorite guitar player and a solid guy; he’s done most of my records. He’s the guy that mixes and masters them for me. So, I love him.

Your creative approach to music is very different, please talk some about influences.
I was influenced greatly as a kid, by television. We watched the Little Rascals—the ISSSBand name is an homage. Bugs Bunny, Popeye, and all that stuff.

So that’s where the interpretive dance comes from?
That’s all from comedy, watching the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and the Marx Brothers, mostly! I want to be an entertainer, not just a blues harmonica player. People can become bored with stuff if it’s the same old thing, over and over. This record was a sign… just put out the music and have some fun!”

Describe Billy Watson’s music.
Fun-loving, hard-driving blues-based music… before I was a harmonica player as a young kid in high school, I used to listen to ’60s rock ‘n’ roll. Led Zeppelin was a huge influence and I started reading about them and they were big into blues. I found out who Howlin’ Wolf was and “who’s this Willie Dixon guy?” I looked them all up and then I got into harmonica and my cousin turned me on to harp. I incorporate…I like that ’60s rock, psychedelic rock, its fun! I listen to Hendrix a lot. I can remember sitting cross-legged for hours and hours with headphones on, listening to Electric Ladyland.

What do you want people to take away from this project?
These are my favorite songs. Every one of them brought me great joy to record. No nonsense, just fun to make. They all have a different sound because they have different players on every song. I like certain grooves, I like grooving music; you can’t fall asleep. You put this in your car, and you can drive and stay awake.

The last track is one of my favorites, “My Bad.”
“My Bad” has Jocko Marcellino from Sha Na Na singing on it. Robin Henkel helped me do that. He’s a mentor to me and helped me identify chords. Robin is a wonderful guy and I’m excited to play the 35th Annual Harp Battle with him later this month. I’m always battling.

Hopefully, the future will provide new avenues for you.
Man, I just hope I can survive. I’m pretty sensitive and I get psyched out pretty easily. I’m trying to combat that and have been for 20 years and in the long run, I always seem to land on my feet. For me personally, I thought this Restrospective album was going to be it and we were just trying to have fun. While we were recording, I would be barbecuing for the band and cutting tracks at the same time. We had a blast!”

I’m pretty sure when you listen to this album, you will too. Get yourself a heaping helping of A 25 Year Retrospective with Billy Watson and his International Silver String Submarine Band. It’s loaded with some of the best and most talented musicians in Southern California. Looking back has never been so much fun!

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