[4 September 2008]
For more than 50 years, Doc Watson has popularized folk and country blues for urban and suburban audiences. His sweet, melodic vocals come across as the voice of true Appalachian roots music. Watson also nimbly plays guitar with finesse and grace. His finger picking style deftly expresses the soul of the mysterious American South. The man is a legend who has influenced generations of listeners and musicians, and his artistry deserves the highest accolades and honors.
So what’s the deal here? Sugar Hill has released a selection of his material from the past five decades on a paltry 14-track collection. Part of this is due to the fact that it needs to conform to the requirements of Sugar Hill’s Americana Master Series, but Watson deserves better. In a perfect world, Watson would be given the royal treatment of a multi-disc box set, complete with rare and unreleased tracks, obscure live cuts, and other treats. But Sugar Hill is a commercial enterprise that needs to make money, and no doubt there’s not much market for old time music. As great as Watson is, he does not make hit records.
As a result, one should be thankful Sugar Hill has released a new Doc Watson disc. There are literally dozens of old Watson recordings available out there that few people bother to purchase. The man has never put out a disc not worth owning. Maybe this will entice buyers, who after hearing this will then go out and get more of Watson’s stuff.
This isn’t really a greatest hits or best known tunes collection, although it is labeled as a “Best of” product. Such a disc would have to include “Tennessee Stud”, which he made famous on Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the 1972 multi-generational, triple album that put old-time country back on the popular country music radar back in the day. Watson originally recorded that Jimmy Driftwood song back in 1966 on Southbound. Nor is there a version of “Deep River Blues”, which is almost Watson’s signature tune because he plays it so well and so often. Nor would a true best of include the E.T. Cozzens/Jimmie Rodger’s tune “My Dear Old Southern Home” from Watson’s 1991 album of the same name because it features Watson yodeling. Today’s audiences don’t want to hear a musician yodel. It’s the contemporary kiss of death, although Watson does a lovely version of it.
The closest thing to a hit here is Watson’s instrumental duet with Bryan Sutton on the traditional tune “Whiskey Before Breakfast”, which won a 2006 Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance. The two guitarists play clean and fast, trading licks as if in a friendly duel for the title of King of the Flat Pickin’ Guitar and the audience wins.
While the track selection seems somewhat random, and one might quibble for why certain songs were included and others were not, what’s here is first rate. There’s probably not a better version of A.P. Carter’s “Solid Gone”, although it’s a tune many other people have recorded. Doc and his (late) son Merle pick twin guitar licks and turn the music into a driving wheel that just pulsates with the energy of a steam locomotive, a machine mentioned in the lyrics. Their vocal harmonies just add to the lonesome feel of being left behind by a gal in such a big rush that you know she’s “Solid Gone”. Merle plays on several tracks, as do other well-known country and bluegrass instrumentalists like Marty Stuart and Sam Bush on mandolin, Bela Fleck on banjo, Mark O’ Conner and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Jerry Douglas on dobro.
But Watson is always large and in charge. Sugar Hill is right in calling him an “Americana Master”, but he is much more than that. Watson deserves to be celebrated as one of America’s greatest musicians.