In an era when music news seems dominated by superstars either squabbling with streaming services or preoccupied with multi-million dollar recording acquisitions,
it is refreshing when fans get the opportunity to digest, without any pretentions, the pure talents of one of the greatest musicians ever to put music to vinyl.
Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson would lose his sight through an eye infection when he was just a toddler, yet he would come to be regarded as not only one as the greatest flat-picking guitarists but also one of the finest custodians of traditional American music.
Now, some 10 years after his death at the age of 89, comes the release of the most comprehensive review – in music, extensive notes and photos – of his extraordinary career spanning nearly seven decades.
The box set Doc Watson Life’s Work: A Retrospective was released late last year by Craft Recordings. It contains 101 recordings, across four CD’s and includes an 88-page book which celebrates his legacy with essays and rare photographs. The work was co-produced by Scott Billington, Mason Williams and Ted Olson who contributed much of the set’s liner notes.
The trio faced a monumental task.
Watson’s discography is quite astonishing. It spans more than 50 years and includes at least 34 studio and live albums, plus a dozen collaboration releases, not to mention another 20-odd compilations.
So, why then, bother with yet another Watson disc catalogue?
The producers of Life’s Work have taken a somewhat academic approach, helped by one of them – Ted Olson – being Professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University and acknowledged as the authority on Appalachian music and its influence across all genres of American roots music. Watson, of course, was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.
As expected, the 101 tracks chosen for the latest compilation cover the three distinctive periods of Watson’s career.
The first period begins with those early years in the 30’s and 40’s when he began listening to the work of country roots pioneers like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and was soon developing into a proficient guitarist. By the early 50’s, he was part of a Tennessee country and western swing band. Life’s Work does in fact include what is thought to be Watson’s first release, a scratchy recording of Roy Acuff’s “The Precious Jewel,” which fittingly opens the retrospective.
Then comes the mid-sixties when Watson began to tour as a solo performer and would get his first big break at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1963. The following year saw him release his first solo album and, more importantly, begin playing with his son Merle, who himself would emerge as a gifted finger-picking guitarist. The pair would perform together for nearly two decades before it would end tragically in 1985 when Merle was killed in a tractor accident on the family farm. He was 36.
The third significant period is defined by his collaboration with other artists which exposed him to millions of new roots-music fans worldwide. Central to this was the ground-breaking Will the Circle Be Unbroken album in 1972 when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band asked Watson and a generation of acclaimed artists – Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements and Jimmy Martin among them – to join them in a celebration of classic American roots music. It also helped that around the same time, Jerry Garcia, who had cult status as a member of the Grateful Dead, started to embrace many of Doc’s iconic songs. And this era also saw the emergence of legendary acoustic flat pickers like Tony Rice and Clarence White – all in awe of Watson’s work.
As might be expected, the best perspective of the collection – and where the individual songs resonate across Watson’s career – comes from an article Olson has written for The Bluegrass Situation. He selected ten tracks which he says are examples of Watson’s “Traditional Plus” repertoire and help illustrate why he is considered among the most important figures in the history of American roots music.
The songs selected by Olson, in the order listed in The Bluegrass Situation:
“Storms Are on the Ocean” – This features a duet with established folk star Jean Ritchie at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village in 1963. It was recorded by Ritchie’s husband George Pickow and released the same year on the album Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City.
“And Am I Born to Die” – This is a cappella hymn-singing version of an old Methodist hymn Watson first heard as a small child at the local Baptist church near Deep Gap. It was a 1964 field recording finally released on the 1977 album Tradition.
“That Was the Last Thing on My Mind” - Doc was a big fan of Tom Paxton and recorded several of the folk legend’s songs over the years. Those chosen seemed ideally suited Watson’s rich baritone voice. This Paxton classic was included on Watson’s 1966 release Southband.
“Alberta” – This was originally a steamboat work song and Watson’s interpretation illustrates his appreciation of several genres of black music.
“Matty Groves” – This is a 17th century ballad chronicling an adulterous relationship between an aristocratic woman and a commoner. Olson says it underscores Watson’s “keen memory (so many verses) and his flawless sense of timing (his guitar accompaniment was understated and delicate yet propulsive).”
“Nothing to It” – This traditional instrumental was arranged by Watson and recorded with bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. It was released on the 1967 Strictly Instrumental album. Watson and the banjo-playing Scruggs were both Northern Carolinians and would perform together throughout their long careers.
“Deep River Blues” – This song was first recorded as “I’ve Got the Big River Blues” in 1933 by The Delmore Brothers. It has long been a favourite on the folk and bluegrass scene. Olson says Doc’s finest rendition was captured during a 1970 concert (along with son Merle) and issued on the live album Doc Watson On Stage.
“Tennessee Stud” – This was a hit for Eddy Arnold in 1959 and recorded by other big artist such as Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed. But Olson believes the definitive version of the country classic is the track Doc with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, recorded in August 1971 and released the following year on Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
“Summertime” – Doc’s version of the Porgy and Bess song appeared on his 1972 album Elementary Doctor Watson and Olson says it is “among the greatest recorded performances of his classic from the American songbook.”
“Corrina Corrina” – This is yet another traditional blues classic recorded by everyone from Blind Lemon Jefferson (1930) to Bob Dylan (1962). Doc and son Merle recoded their version for their 1973 Grammy Award-winning album Then and Now. It was the first of Doc’s eight Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
Olson’s selections provide a fair and broad assessment of the 101 tracks listed on Life’s Work, focusing, as they do, on the “Traditional Plus” repertoire. However, such is the sheer breath and depth of the songs selected for this astonishing collection, other tracks seem equally capable of qualifying for any “best of” selection.
Top of an alternative list must be Doc’s duet with wife Rosa Lee on “Your Long Journey”, a song he wrote with Rosa Lee, who herself was from a musical family, with her father, Gaither Carlton, being a top fiddle player. This most beautiful reflection on death and the after-life would later gain broad recognition with versions by the likes of Emmylou Harris and the duet of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant.
As might be expected, Life’s Work contains a large number of songs recorded with Merle, many of them live from a concert in New York in 1970. Some of these are acknowledged by Olson, but another worth noting is their cover of the American standard “Banks of the Ohio.” Doc’s vocals are smooth and soothing, matched artfully by Merle’s wonderful flat-picking.
If there was to be a silver-lining to Merle’s sudden death, it was Doc’s desire to mark his passing by establishing MerleFest, an annual music event held in memory of his son at Wilkesboro, North Carolina. It has been scheduled each April since 1988 and though Doc made few personal appearances elsewhere in his final years, one gig he seldom missed was MerleFest.
And across the years, MerleFest would attract some of the great roots-music artists, all eager to share the stage with the great man. It was from such collaborations that some of Doc’s best work can be heard, and there are two other collaborative tracks worth noting.
The first is a pure gem with the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. The high tenor of Monroe provides a perfect contrast for Watson’s smooth baritone as the pair glide through “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul.” It was the first number Monroe ever recorded, with his brother Charlie, in North Carolina back in 1935. This version is from the Smithsonian Folkways release Bill Monroe & Doc Watson Live Duet Recordings 1963-1980.
The second sees Doc team up with a new generation of bluegrass legends when he joins Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss for a majestic a cappella treatment of “Down In The River To Pray”. No fancy finger-picking required here. Just three great, yet quite different, voices hitting every note. “Mighty Pretty,” quips Watson at the end.
The same could be said about every track on this majestic tribute to a true legend of American music.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation
Note: Professor Ted Olson’s full review of Doc Watson Life’s Work: A Retrospective can be found at The Bluegrass Situation: https://thebluegrasssituation.com