The Definitive Doc Watson
Sugar Hill Records
5 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
Doc Watson’s recording career began in 1962, but his presence seems to extend back into history much further than that. Born in North Carolina in 1923, and blinded by disease in his first year, he soaked up every note he could hear—over the radio and from the family Victrola—and by his death in 2012 had become to the American acoustic music what Mark Twain is to American literature. One can hear a little bit of everything that came before and what came after Watson in the music he made. While Samuel Clemens wielded a cigar, a pen, and a wit that was both friendly and fearless, Arthel Lane Watson’s tools were a nimble clawhammer banjo, a booming guitar—steel-stringed and flat-picked, always—and a voice strong and broad enough to sing just about every type of song an American might care to sing without the aid of electricity.
Watson, who recorded dozens of albums and played thousands of sets, made plenty of music for any archivist to come up with countless representative permutations, but Sugar Hill’s Fred Jasper’s playlist of 34 songs on this two-disc set spanning one and three-quarter hours hits the spot for newcomers and longtime fans alike.
The first 10 tracks—save a brisk guitar duet on “Black Mountain Rag” with John Herald—feature only Doc, on stage or in studio with either a guitar or banjo, in the first three or four years as a national performer. His relatively youthful presence is as distinct and commanding as that of legends like Son House and Mississippi John Hurt who were being re-recorded near the end of their lives spent mastering their art. Watson, who had half a century of music yet to come, was already masterful: effortless on a languorous “St. Louis Blues,” brooding on “The House Carpenter,” which one should compare and contrast with Bob Dylan’s take from The Bootleg Series, Vol.1, and swaggering on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Anniversary Blue Yodel (Blue Yodel #7.”
The meat of this feast—the second half of disc one, the first half of disc two—chronicles Watson’s musical relationship with son Merle, who was a chip off the proverbial old block on banjo and guitar, from the late 1960s until Merle’s death in 1984. They pick some country blues worthy of both halves of that descriptive phrase, and offer a simple, yet exquisite take on the Delmore Brothers’ “Blue Railroad Train.” The first disc ends with father and son enacting the six-minute cinema of the sex-and-death English folk song “Matty Groves,” a track from 1966 that I’d somehow missed up until now, but have been wearing out the last couple of weeks.
Disc two brings in many of the pickers who came after Watson and, following his example, showed that folk and country music—in the original, musicologically correct senses of those adjectives—need not be merely simply played, repetitive music by which one dances in barns. Dan Crary, Sam Bush, Jack Lawrence, Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Marty Stuart, and Mark O’Connor show here with Watson, and throughout their remarkable careers, why they are regarded the world over as musicians who can play and create music as soulful, complex, or grand as any composer or musician from any other musical tradition.
The Definitive Doc Watson closes with a three-minute romp through “Whiskey Before Breakfast” recorded in a hotel room in 2006 with Sutton, one of the few guitarists worthy of being discussed along with our subject here. It’s striking in that you have to really listen to keep it straight who is playing what—showing that Watson’s shadow looms long—and that you could have labeled this as a recording with Merle from 1970, or as one of Watson’s debut recordings (if there was someone who could pick quite this good in 1962) and it would fit right in. Just load it up and play it—in order or on shuffle; it’s all great. Steeped in time and shaped by it, Watson is himself timeless.