"I grew up hearing songs like 'Banks of the Ohio' played at bluegrass festivals, and I never really paid attention to the words that much," says Sean Watkins, an Americana A-lister who kicked off his career by co-founding Nickel Creek at age 12. "It sounded like a happy song. One day, I looked it up and read the words and it was shocking. It's a good example of how a lot of these old bluegrass songs can be so violent."
That didn't stop Watkins from learning the 19th-century song, modeling his own version after an old Doc Watson performance featuring the dobro. Years later, when he met Fiona Apple at the Largo — a Los Angeles club that's been hosting the Watkins Family Hour, his weekly music variety show with sister Sara Watkins, since 2002 — Watkins used "Banks of the Ohio" as a sort of bridge, something to connect two musicians who'd been raised on wildly different styles of music.
"Fiona and I met and started playing songs together," he remembers. "Largo was still a small place back then, a place you could go try out new things and learn new songs, so we started finding some music we both could identify with. I learned some songs she had grown up singing — mostly jazz standards — and then she learned the equivalent for me, which was bluegrass songs and murder ballads."
This April, the pair's performance of "Banks of the Ohio" will form the A-side of a seven-inch vinyl single. It's a simple, laid-back recording, driven forward by upright piano, acoustic guitar and coed harmonies. Like the vinyl's other song — a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers," featuring former Old Crow Medicine Show bandmate Willie Watson — "Banks of the Ohio" was tracked quickly in a home studio. The goal was to translate the spirit and immediacy of those Largo gigs, where Watkins has spent the past decade performing with everyone from Jackson Browne to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' Benmont Tench, to tape.
"We were trying to capture a moment, a vibe," says Watkins, who released his last solo album, All I Do Is Lie, last summer. "It was just me and some friends, sitting around a studio or my living room with some mics set up."