Tradition and Innovation: Aoife O’Donovan & Willie Watson

Massachusetts native Aoife O’Donovan surely ranks among the most talented musicians in the indie folk genre of her generation. Most immediately compelling is her vocal timbre, impossibly combining lightheartedness with profound gravity, youthful exuberance with timeless wisdom, wispy etherealnes with husky earthiness. Just as her voice embraces seemingly irreconcilable opposites, so too does her music encompass at once different ends of the spectrum of possibilities: on the one hand, she clearly embraces tradition, as much at home covering traditional ballads or bluegrass classics as performing original, cutting-edge music. Crooked Still, the progressive bluegrass group with whom she rose to fame, notably incorporated a cello into the mix, infusing even the band’s recordings and performances of the genre’s timeless classics with modern, innovative sensibilities.

Aoife_Aug2015_joannachattmanHer skills quickly attracted the attention of luminous luminaries in the world of neo-traditional music, not only with her singing, but with her songwriting skills as well. Her original composition “Lay My Burden Down” was featured on Alison Krauss’s 2011 album Paper Airplane, and her “Red & White & Blue & Gold” was featured on the HBO hit series True Blood in 2013. That same year, she appeared alongside virtuosos Yo Yo Ma (cello), Chris Thile (mandolin), Edgar Meyer (bass), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle) on the award-winning Goat Rodeo Sessions, not only as a singer, but also in her capacity as a songwriter, co-authoring the track “Here and Heaven.” The list goes on: she has toured with Sarah Jarosz and Sarah Watson, the Punch Brothers, and the Milk Carton Kids, and is a frequently featured artist on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. In January of this year, she released her most recent album, In the Magic Hour.

Willie Watson, a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and banjoist from Schuyler County, New York, rose to prominence as an original member of Old Crow Medicine Show, which attained national and international success in the early years of the twenty-first century with the help of country-music legend Doc Watson. The group’s journey led them from busking on street corners to touring alongside such figures as Merle Haggard and Connie Smith, and opening for such country-music superstars as Ricky Skaggs, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton.

In 2011, Watson left Old Crow Medicine Show to pursue a solo career. In his early years as a solo artist, he interacted with many of the same musicians as O’Donovan, he performed at events with Sara Watkins, and, based in the Venice beach area, opened for Sarah Jarosz and the Punch Brothers, among many others. Notwithstanding his ample skills as a songwriter, he came to prefer covering older, traditional material to his own compositions.imgres-2

His solo debut, Folk Singer vol. 1, was released in 2014, and is firmly rooted in folk and traditional music. The album was produced by David Rawlings, who had worked as a producer for Old Crow Medicine Show. (Rawlings is perhaps best known for his work alongside the incomparable singer-songwriter Gillian Welch.)

O’Donovan and Watson’s joint appearance offers the opportunity to witness two first-rate musicians in their prime together pursuing a mixture of old and new, traditional and eclectic, familiar and provocative. Their collaboration has received highly positive reviews, and their performance in Club Weisiger is sure to delight a wide variety of music-lovers in what is sure to be a night to remember.

Dr. Nathan Link
NEH Associate Professor of Music

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nathanlinkprofileNathan Link is an associate professor of music. He was named a Centre Scholar in 2009, received a Stodghill Fellowship for the 2009-10 year, and is serving as a Mellon Global Fellow from 2010-2012, contributing to the development of an African and African-American Studies program at Centre.

Prior to joining Centre’s faculty in 2006, he was an instructor at Yale University. He specializes in eighteenth-century opera, with strong secondary interests in nineteenth-century music and aesthetics, the theory of opera, African music, and country and popular music. He currently teaches courses in music history, humanities, and Kentucky music, and leads Centre’s Kentucky Ensemble. His publications have appeared in Oxford University Press’sOpera Quarterly, the Journal of the American Library Association, the Göttinger Händel Beiträge, and Opera Today, and he is currently working on two books, one on Handel’s operas and another on country music.

He serves as vice-president of both the American Handel Society and the American Musicological Society’s South-Central chapter. He earned his Ph.D. in music history,with distinction, from Yale University in 2006 with a dissertation on the operas of Georg Frideric Handel, his M.A. from the University of Washington in 2001 with a thesis on Johannes Brahms’s first string quartet, and his bachelor’s degree from Macalester College, cum laude, in 1992, with majors in English and music theory and composition.

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Categories: Notes from the Faculty

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