Let me say this up front: I can’t write impartially about Doc Watson.
If you, like me, are from the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, Doc Watson is more than just a musician. He’s mythical, a living legend—and yet, he’s also a good-hearted, approachable family man. Though he’s been crowned with wide and deserved acclaim, including a National Medal of Arts, Doc would likely describe himself as just a “good old boy from the hills.” There’s a mountain not far from Doc’s birthplace called Grandfather Mountain, and I’d reckon that Doc’s legacy will be as permanent as the peaks on ol’ Grandfather.
Doc and his son Merle came to prominence during the ‘60s “folk boom”, interpreting traditional songs using a simple, durable formula: fiddle tunes transcribed onto guitar in Doc’s remarkably fluid style, supported by Merle’s ever-tasteful and often bluesy guitar accompaniment. It was impossible for people to ignore Doc’s warmly magnetic voice, which has the ability to sound like he’s conveying an anecdote to you as an old friend.
Black Mountain Rag surveys Doc and Merle’s Flying Fish albums from the early ‘80s, predominantly drawing from Red Rocking Chair, Watson Country and Doc & Merle Watson’s Guitar Album. This is a companion release to 2004’s Sittin’ Here Pickin’ the Blues, which compiled from these same albums. Several of the tunes on Black Mountain Rag—most prominently “Mole in the Ground”, “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke”, and “Leaving London”—are standards in Doc’s live repertoire and will be familiar to Doc fans. A few of Doc’s long-time sidemen offer their support, including T. Michael Coleman on bass and harmony, and a young Mark O’Connor on mandolin and fiddle.
Any reissue that recalls the telepathy of this father/son combination is monumentally worthwhile. Merle was killed in a tractor accident in 1985, and while Doc continues to perform, and Rounder, Vanguard, and Sugar Hill continue to repackage and reassemble his releases, I will always welcome an opportunity to hear the magic interplay of Doc and Merle’s guitars. The opening title track is as enjoyable as it is jaw-dropping: The clear and propulsive picking astounds, and my instinctual reaction is a smiling awe. “Blackberry Blossom” features Doc, Merle, and Tony Rice—arguably the holy trinity of bluegrass guitar.
Although less than half of these 20 tracks feature vocals, this isn’t just an album for flatpickers. Yes, guitar buffs will humbly shake their heads upon hearing the precision picking of “Guitar Polka”. But the good humor in Doc’s voice as he performs Merle Travis’ “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke” is sure to entertain the crowd. The same can be said for “Mole in the Ground”, in which Doc accompanies himself on both a harmonica and clawhammer banjo. One of my personal favorites is “Leaving London”, a tune I believe Doc expertly interprets, his voice embodying the longing lyrics.
This release does somewhat date itself: Doc’s voice is, of course, less husky and deep than it is today, more than 20 years later. The crystal-clear production—including the prominent mixing of the rhythm section—further timestamps these recordings, although you become accustomed to this characteristic after a few listens (excepting O’Connor’s schmaltzy fiddle on “Black Pine Waltz”). Several of these numbers appear on various other releases, and perhaps Black Mountain Rag isn’t the best starting place for one initiating interest in the Watson Family. Generalists should check out Then & Now/Two Days in November, and guitarists will love Foundation: Doc Watson Guitar Instrumental Collection, 1964-1998.
Newcomers would also be well-served by attending Merlefest in the North Carolina mountains, where Americana musicians and fans from across the globe gather each year to celebrate the memory of Merle and the music that he and his father made together. A similar tribute is made by the release of Black Mountain Rag. When, in the final track, Doc sings “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar”, one can’t help but remorsefully think of the time when he must. Doc is now in his 84th year. Revisiting these songs solidifies the mastery of this living legend.