From Jackpot to The Truth, Lee Bob Watson remains the mysterious rhythm master of Sacramento songwriting: Next performance is June 8

Lee Bob Watson

SN&R catches up with Watson before his show this Saturday at The Side Door

By Casey Sexton

Lee Bob Watson strolls into Old Soul Coffee and the image of the Preacher in Pale Rider jumps into my head. Then, I hear the resonating voice of Johnny Cash say, “And I looked, and behold a pale horse. And his name that sat on him was Death.” 

Admittedly, I have an active imagination, but that’s what I like about Watson —so many layers.

The man exudes art, mystery and sincerity underneath his brim and behind those impeccable sunglasses. 

He invokes imagination.

On a leisurely afternoon in Oak Park, before the heat sets in, the two of us sit down to discuss the music business, as well as reflect on what Watson’s been up to for the last 20 years. 

‘The Sun Years’ (2001). 

“The Sun Years” was written and produced by Watson and features performances by Sacramento greats like Gabe Nelson, Rusty Miller, Mike Farrell, Damon Wykoff, Josh Lacey, Justin DeHart and Mitchell Slater. Its tracks were mixed and mastered by none other than David Houston (the local founder of Moon Studio who’s known for producing Tony! Toni! Toné!, Club Nouveau, Blink 182 and others).

Deep Sacramento music roots have continued to influence Watson’s career.

The songwriter has been prolific since his first release. Putting out eight more albums over two decades, his music has soulful lyrics and melodies. Each album tells a story reflecting his growth as an artist and his ability to adapt to the modern music industry. They also reflect his transition from a full band – Lee Bob & The Truth, or the surf-twang sensation Jackpot –  to a solo artist and all the challenges that come with it.

“I felt a little bit of an opportunity, and I felt a little bit nervous,” Watson shares, reflecting on the shift. “Like, okay, I don’t have my safety net. I don’t have my guys, but I do know great local musicians.” 

Navigating this new terrain, Watson realized he needed a new band configuration. Rather than a full band, he envisioned two distinct trios to capture different musical directions.

“My favorite thing in the world, creatively, is rhythm sections,” he explains. “I worked on having two different rhythm sections.”

Watson’s band, The Truth, is dispersed geographically, making regular collaboration challenging.

“We will do work again, but I wanted to have a trio, and as it turns out I wanted two trios,” he notes. “These people are all phenomenal local players. Everyone is so good, I can mash them up together and they’re even better, you know. So that was the goal.”

One trio features Tom Monson and Gabe Nelson (Belly Gunner), both seasoned musicians and longtime friends. The second trio includes Harley White Jr. (Black Yacht Club) and Dominic Edward Garcia (Son Cafe). For Watson, rhythm is essential. While some artists excel in solo acoustic performances, Watson craves the dynamic pulse of bass and drums.

“I don’t like playing solo,” he admits. “I like the rhythm. I know my songs. I know my voice, but that’s only half of it for me.”

This passion drives Watson’s performance style, allowing him to lean into the groove and sometimes step back from his guitar to act as an emcee.

And, at his core, Watson is a songwriter who thrives on the interplay of music more than lyrics or vocals. 

“I love writing a good song; but I get off on the music even more than my words or singing,” he reveals. “The music propels me.”

He adds that, without a rhythm section, it just feels like something is missing: “It just makes me happier when it’s happening.”

Recently, Watson’s focus has been mainly on the joy of live performance with fellow musicians. It means more to him than any kind of commercial success. 

“It’s not all bad, and I do remember a time when regular working-class musicians could make a decent living,” he recalls. “They could pay rent and hold their head up when they walked around town. A regular member of society … I’ve usually had a reasonable way to make a living, so that I didn’t have to rely on writing songs. I take it so seriously, and it’s such a part of who I am, that when I do switch it on… I’m struggling. I’m looking at it from the outside: there is a lot of chaos wrapped up in this.”

‘Free’ today

‘Lee Bob.’ Photograph by Davis Luraschi

For fans, Watson is a reminder that true artistry requires not just talent, but also a deep commitment to authenticity and self-expression. He thinks his upcoming show at The Side Door in Curtis Park is a perfect reflection of his sensibilities, especially in how the listening room provides an atmosphere that highlights music in a way that sometimes gets lost in noisy bars. His show there on Saturday, June 8, will showcase his latest EP, “Free.” The collection is a musical journey conceived on a rooftop in Bamako, Mali in 2011. 

The EP opens with the first single, “Piece of Mind,” featuring an ensemble of talented musicians: Joe Bagale (a.k.a. Otis McDonald), Harley White Jr., Gabe Nelson, Hannah Lingrell, JJ Golden, and, of course, Watson himself. This track immediately stands out with its penetrating instrumental that swings effortlessly, thanks to McDonald’s deft touch as a songwriter, vocalist and instrumentalist. The groove is irresistible, offering the perfect soundtrack for a warm day.

Nelson, who will play alongside Watson on Saturday, anticipates putting a special energy into songs like “Piece of Mind” on stage.

“Lee is a longtime musical brother,” Nelson observes. “He’s got a lot of soul. I’m looking forward to the show.”

As I wrote this review with “Piece of Mind” on repeat, I couldn’t help but pair it with an afternoon joint and my favorite lime-flavored signature select soda water. The song’s laid-back yet engaging vibe creates a mood that’s perfect for unwinding and enjoying the moment.

As the EP progresses, the sound expands, bringing a drum choir and balafon to the forefront. The rhythmic energy invites listeners to dance, transforming the experience into a communal celebration. It feels like a journey through different cultural landscapes, arriving at a place where tradition meets modernity in a harmonious blend.

Watson’s new compositions will be on full display at Saturday’s Side Door performance.

Sarah: ‘Who are you? Who are you… really?’

The Preacher: ‘Well, it really doesn’t matter, does it?’

Casey Sexton is the producer for Casey Sexton Presents and talent buyer for The Side Door in Sacramento – ‘curating talent, creating magic’

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