Ten years ago, Bruce Watson was just another would-be musician, running a department store by day in his adopted home of Oxford, Mississippi, and recording demos on his home 8-track for his friends in local bands. With a burgeoning scene on the rise featuring the likes of Blue Mountain, Neilson Hubbard and Clay Jones, John Stirratt (Uncle Tupelo/Wilco) and Garrison Starr, Watson stayed pretty busy on nights and weekends as his studios progressed from spare bedroom to "basements, to sheds, to wherever." But one day in 1992, all that changed. Fat Possum Records, a new local label formed in order to preserve North Mississippi's Hill Country blues style, was preparing to record Junior Kimbrough, one of the progenitors of the sound. They had a name producer lined up in the late music critic Robert Palmer, and they had a spot in mind for the recording — Kimbrough's tiny juke joint north of Oxford in Marshall County (which was once described by former Living Blues editor David Nelson as "a place where the laws of gravity don't even apply"). All they needed was the means to capture the performance of Kimbrough and his band. Then came the day that changed Bruce Watson's life.
"There was no one else around that had any recording equipment," Watson, a Missouri native, recalled with a laugh. "So by being the only guy around, I got invited."
That first Fat Possum release, Kimbrough's All Night Long, was recorded live in the old rundown house that the elder bluesman operated as a nightclub. "Going into Junior's club just changed my life," Watson said. "Looking back, that was the point that everything changed for me. In those three days that we set up to record, almost everything I thought I knew about music went out the door."
Like many his age, the 40-year-old Watson grew up with no direct attachment to the blues. Raised on a healthy diet of Thin Lizzy and AC/DC before discovering punk rock and its mutant offspring, alternative rock, Watson had no interest in "all that B.B. King 12-bar blues and all that watered-down Chicago blues stuff." But Kimbrough's haunting, droning, trance-like take on the blues took Watson's soul. "Nobody's music has ever touched me the way Junior's did," he said. "From the moment I heard him, I knew what I wanted to do — I wanted to make records with these guys. And from then on, I did everything I could to make it happen."
Thus commenced the education of Bruce Watson. "We set up in the juke joint and recorded live," Watson said of the All Night Long session. "So I learned a lot of stuff from Robert Palmer, as far as like picking up a lot of ambient noises. He would just go find a corner and stick a mic up in it and all kinds of crazy mic'ing techniques, things he figured out from hanging around the old Hi Studio in Memphis in the early days where he picked up a lot from Willie Mitchell. So, he'd tell me stories about that, and it got me pretty interested in it."
"Pretty interested" is an understatement. Today, Watson is Fat Possum's general manager, as well as a partner of FP owner Matthew Johnson in the label's publishing company and Money Shot recording studio, an analog/digital facility located in an old school lunchroom building in the woods outside of Water Valley, Mississippi. He's been involved in most of the label's releases, from bluesman R.L. Burnside's chaotic collaboration with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, to the largely acoustic recordings of Cedell Davis and the garage-y punk rock of the Neckbones. By early 2004, Watson had more than 50 producing, engineering or mixing credits on his resume.
Following the success of All Night Long (which received a four-star review in Rolling Stone), the Fat Possum team stuck with the formula of recording live on site. "We kinda got stuck in an ADAT world, because we were basically working out of a basement," Watson said. "We didn't have any money, so we were making records for like $300 on ADATs. They were cheap to record with; you could just throw them in the back of the car with some microphones and a Mackie board."
This method worked for a few years and a couple dozen releases. In 1996, Fat Possum inked a deal with distributor Epitaph and started looking toward building a proper studio facility. Eventually, they settled on an old white clapboard building in the sticks. "We got to the point where we were looking for a building to buy to put the studio in. We looked at a bunch of different places and none of 'em seemed right," Watson said. "But we found this place, which was an old school cafeteria. It's got three or four acres [of land], so the neighbors aren't right up on you. We just whittled out a studio from what was here. We didn't do too much, just put in a sound booth and put in some glass. That was about it."
With the new digs came a change in format to a more blues-friendly (but maintenance-challenged) one-inch Scully 8-track. Watson and Johnson dug the sound, but found "that stuff is so hard to find parts for," and ultimately secured a one-inch 16-track Tascam 85-16B recording machine. Nowadays, Watson records onto a Studer A-80 2-inch 16-track,...