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Jim Willingham Returns with Dim Watts on Eye Two Three

Dim Watts. Credit: Loney John Hutchins

From his work with local analog psych-folk groups Ham1 and Old Smokey to his time as a bandmate of the legendary Vic Chesnutt, Athens singer-songwriter Jim Willingham has kept the company of some of the most uniquely expressive acts in the town’s history. In Eye Two Three, Willingham’s fifth musical release and the first with his new band Dim Watts, Willingham is joined by old friends to present a masterclass on the simple but effective metaphors and musical structure that has come to define his songs, refusing to rely on meticulous instrumentation and production in favor of economy of style. 

For Eye Two Three, Willingham used the capital and resources he acquired from winning the fourth annual Vic Chesnutt Songwriter of The Year Award in 2020 to get the project off the ground, enlisting the help of drummer John Ross Bleech, who also plays in bands The Humms and Uncle Goo. The duo was then joined by Old Smokey bandmate Jason Trahan on lap steel and Adam Hebert (Los Cantares, Infinite Favors, Deaf Condors) on bass. The album was recorded at Jesse Mangum’s The Glow Recording Studio. 

Earlier this month, “The Nail” was released to tease the album ahead of its official release on July 21. Based on a Japanese proverb that, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” the song sits comfortably in its two-minute runtime. Even somewhat divorced from its cultural origins, the proverb serves as a poignant basis for Willingham’s commentary on conformity, political manipulation and state violence. A catchy melody backed by Trahan’s lap steel runs throughout. 

“When I had first moved to Athens, GA, in 1994, I finally felt like my awkward gawky self had found a place that I truly fit in,” Willingham says. “A lot of the art and music community in Athens, at the time, embraced the most eccentric among us. Older townies referred to Athens as ‘The Isle of Misfit Toys.’

“Athens still retains a lot of this vibe with some of us, despite the suburban sprawl that has spilled out here from Atlanta,” says Willingham. “However, trying to navigate rigid workplaces, as well as creeping authoritarianism in the U.S. of A, has had me ponder a lot of the difficulties of trying to make it as a unique human being. We square pegs have it hard sometimes.”

On “The Nail,” Willingham sings, “The tree branch got turned into a gun/ It didn’t want to be a weapon, but then it became one,” evoking images of childhood arsenals that teach us from a young age of our ability to impress images on the world through the supreme authority of violence. The song’s accompanying music video was filmed on the art trail of Mux Blank, a multidisciplinary artist, performer and host of JOKERJOKERtv.

Although “The Nail” is the album’s premiere release, many strong songs pepper Dim Watts’ debut album. The album’s sixth song, “Open and Carry,” comes to mind. In a way only a writer like Willingham can, he deftly and compassionately approaches the subject of members of American society who believe it necessary to carry a firearm in public. “I can almost feel the weight pulling down at your side,” Willingham sings in the chorus, backed by his raspy nylon string guitar.

Although many of the songs on the album address social and political issues, it’s done so in a way that blends seamlessly with the respective song. Over it all, Willingham’s distinctive voice shines through, an honest voice dripping with backyard Athens spirit and the sentiments of outsider folk. 

Loney John Hutchins

The fourth and fifth songs, “Swells of Sounds” and “Introlude,” demonstrate the members of Dim Watts’ strengths as composers. Each consummate professionals on their respective instruments, the quartet flexes their sonic muscles in the slow but grand “Swells of Sounds,” and provide a brief but powerful instrumental reprieve before the record is flipped. Side two of the record features possibly the best song on the album, “Phantom Train,” a character-driven story song about a conductor’s experience with a ghostly locomotive. It’s atmospheric, possessing a complex mood that stands out from most songs on the album. 

Eye Two Three will be released on Nashville’s Cleft Music label on vinyl, CD and streaming. Dim Watts is slated to play an album release show at Buvez on Saturday, July 22, with shows in Atlanta, Gainesville, Nashville and more to be announced. The release show will also include performances by Don Chambers, W8ING4UFOS (members of Smoke, The Jody Grind, Follow For Now, etc. from Atlanta) and Tierney Tough (member of The Pauses from Gainesville, FL).

WHO: Dim Watts, Don Chambers, W8ING4UFOS, Tierney Tough
WHEN: Saturday, July 22, 5 p.m. (doors), 6 p.m. (show)
WHERE: Buvez