Alt-folk and newgrass singer-songwriter Daniel Watkins felt somewhat isolated growing up in Henry, a town today of roughly 2,300 on the west side of the Illinois River about 45 minutes northeast of Peoria.
“I don’t want to be misunderstood here. Everybody is really supportive (today). I come from a supportive family and I’m still on good terms with people I went to high school with and they’re great people. I was into different things musically and artistically. I don’t think people really understood why I really got it,” said Watkins, who Nightshop owner Chris Golwitzer calls “nearly the best picker around.”
Yet the area still holds a grip on him, as he lives just seven miles south of Henry in his grandmother's old house in nearby Sparland. He recalls younger days in “By a Dam Sight” from his eponymous debut album released last December. The title comes from Henry’s motto: Best Town by a Dam Site.
River, runs down through the valley
Its muddy water flows through my veins.
- from “By a Dam Sight” by Daniel Watkins
“I got my first job in high school by the river,” said Watkins.
It was at a place called The Landing, located at the marina by the old lock and dam—the first lock and dam built on the Illinois River.
“I pumped gas for boats, and in college, the only place in college I could get the jazz show on GLT is when I was down by the lock and dam, so I’d park my car there sometimes. When I graduated high school, they asked me where I saw myself in 10 years, I joked around that I wanted to live in a van down by the river,” he laughed at his Chris Farley reference.
“I’m still trying to save up for that van, I’m almost there,” he chuckled.
During the 20-minute conversation at the GLT studios, Watkins’ spoken words were measured and thoughtful, an ethic evident in his songwriting. His beautiful melodies and lyrical imagery leave indelible imprints in your brain. A great example is the haunting “Main & James,” a song Watkins sings over a gentle shuffle.
When you finally wake up in the morning
I hear you creeping out of my backdoor
I listen to the leaves as they crack beneath your feet
Like ivory keys are banging out of tune
- from “Main & James” by Daniel Watkins
“This song comes from my old house in Henry, which was on the corner of Main and James,” said Watkins. “It’s where my daughter spent the first year of her life. I wrote the first two verses the summer after she was born. When her mom moved out on New Year’s Eve, I finished the song with the last verse.”
Watkins displays the chops Golwitzer raves about on “Third Night In,” a song Watkins characterized as a spiteful ditty about a snarky response to having his heart broken.
“When I was pretty young and naïve, I was led to believe I was in a serious relationship. That was not the case obviously. I don’t know if I would write that kind of song now, because I think it’s kind of mean spirited in a way, but this is one of the songs I play the most. It’s up-tempo and fun to play in bluegrass jams … it’s really easy … it’s like three chords,” he laughed.
Discussing “Train Run Down” brought Watkins back to mixed post high-school memories.
“When I was 19 or 20, I started staying up weekends partying a lot,” said Watkins. “Eventually I kind of got sick of it. Five or six in the morning and you’re still up drinking and everyone looks like zombies. ‘Train Run Down’ is kind of like, ‘I’m just going to let this train hit me.'"
I can smell the evening on her breast
As she laid in a curl upon my bed
Now I hear the whistle blowing
So I lay myself down
Right along the tracks I’ll let this train run down over me
- from “Train Run Down” by Daniel Watkins
Watkins thoughts returned to growing up in a small town.
“It’s pretty uneventful. You’re kind of left to figure out what do you want to entertain yourself with,’” he said.
It’s certainly not a new observation that small towns have been depopulating for decades across the globe. But is there something missing ... perhaps personally or culturally as a society that more people don’t grow up in small towns? Watkins isn’t sure as he recalls the isolation of growing up in Henry.
“I just wanted to be anywhere but my small town of Henry,” laughed Watkins at the recollection. “And now I enjoy being out there. It’s quiet. I’m energized by being around many different people, but at the same time, I’m energized just being by myself away from the noise.”
Daniel Watkins plays with the Wes Duffy Trio Sunday night at Nightshop in downtown Bloomington. Feathered Mason is also on the bill.
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