Arthel Lane “Doc Watson” released a lot of records during his lifetime (he died back in 2012), and since then even more of his music has been issued. He was a genial artist with a pleasant baritone voice, a winning flatpicking acoustic guitar style, and a repository of traditional tunes drawn from his rural North Carolina roots. Watson won seven Grammy Awards, in addition to one for Lifetime Achievement, and thanks to his contributions to the crossover success of “Tennessee Stud” on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Watson was well-known by rock fans as well as bluegrass, folk, gospel, and country listeners.
The question becomes, how much Watson is enough? During his lifetime, Watson released over 50 live and studio records and more than 20 compilations—and these numbers do not include his collaborations with others such as Jean Ritchie, Chet Atkins, and Del McCoury. No one except for the most ardent listener could already hear what already exists. But in the end, that doesn’t really matter. Doc Watson, Live at the Bottom Line, showcases Doc’s many talents both as a musician and as a storyteller. Introducing “Dream of a Miner’s Child” as a true tale instead of a local legend can defy belief, but that’s all part of his shtick.
Whether Watson was authentic or just wearing the guise of authenticity has been debated by critics. The truth is he was an adventurous musician who went wherever the song took him, whether he was performing a tune learned from his family or from the radio. This concert features 43 tracks from a two 2002 shows at the Village’s Bottom Line nightclub. He celebrated his 79 birthday between appearances. The set-list includes everything from traditional ballads like “Shady Grove” to rock material like Procol Harum’s prog rock “Nights in White Satin”. Watson has an inclusive repertoire that goes from genre to genre without any song not sounding distinctively imprinted with his personal stamp. Watson can even make Merle Haggard’s signature tune “Working Man’s Blues” sound like one of Watson’s own by rendering the tune in his virtuosic flatpicking style.
He and his band, including his grandson Richard (son of the late Merle Watson, who was Doc’s son and musical partner), spiritedly deliver covers of Mississippi John Hurt, the Carter Family, Merle Travis, and such with energy and enthusiasm. The disc never drags and enjoys excellent sound quality. You do feel like you are sitting and hearing from the best seat in the house. Apparently, the Bottom Line recorded over 1,000 concerts during its 30-year run from 1974-2014. If the superior characteristics of this release is any indication, we are in for some fabulous music from the heart of Manhattan during its more infamous days.
There may be too many Doc Watson albums for one person to hear, but it is difficult to think of a more pleasurable musical experience. In the meantime, this concert from 2002 provides an excellent place to start. It captures Watson as an experienced and nuanced performer who could take his audiences down many divergent roads without ever losing their hearts or attention.
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