Doc Watson has one of those baritones that sound so easy and natural. His phrasing and the way he easily brings forward the emotional center of a song—whether it’s Jimmie Rodgers’ country jaunt “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride”, or Sonny Terry’s “I’m a Stranger Here”—are magical. And he and his son Merle certainly know how to pick and strum a guitar, immersing Doc’s baritone in an almost perfect musical bath.
The Rounder release of Sittin’ Here Pickin’ the Blues, an expanded version of the Watsons’ classic Pickin’ the Blues, containing eight additional songs from their Flying Fish Records catalogue, offers a perfect introduction to the kind of country, bluegrass, and blues that the Watsons so easily make their own.
The disc offers a mix of traditional (“John Henry/Worried Blues”, “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues”, and several others), a slew of Jimmie Rodgers’ songs, old blues from John Estes (a clean and uncomplicated version of “Jailhouse Blues”), and numerous other sources.
The disc shows a respect for the material that avoids the kind of anthropological approach that can mar too many recordings of older material. A good example of what happens when an artist is too reverential is Eric Clapton’s Me and Mr. Johnson, a very listenable blues disc that suffers from being too polite—a charge no one ever could have made against Robert Johnson.
That’s not a trap the Watsons fall into on this disc. The disc’s 20 songs were all released between 1979 and 1985 and feature an array of backing musicians. Four songs originally released on Red Rocking Chair—“Did You Hear John Hurt”, “Any Old Time”, “How Long Blues”, and “California Blues”—offer an expanded blues line-up, including Merle on slide guitar, Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, and Tom Scott on clarinet. Other songs—the Pickin’ the Blues and Doc & Merle Watson’s Guitar Album material—are more “countrified”, featuring fiddle and mandolin.
Sittin’ Here Pickin’ the Blues takes the music from these three albums—and a cut from The Festival Tapes/Tellulive, recorded at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1979—and creates a brand new album, altering the song sequence so that the blues and country are forced to interact in ways that make them bounce against each other.
So “Did You Hear John Hurt”, with its straight, four-piece rock and roll line-up, pushes against “John Henry/Worried Blues” and its flatpicking bluegrass style. “Stormy Weather”, with its slide guitar and fiddle reworking the big-band classic into country blues, leads into “How Long Blues”, with Doc doing a fine blues vocal and Musselwhite playing his typically driving harmonica, into the country “Honey Babe Blues”, and then a remarkable version of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”, just Doc singing and playing guitar.
The remastering offers a clean sound that really does the material here justice and the liner notes—a short piece by Doc on where his love for the blues came from that was included with the original 1985 release, plus short explanations of each song, also from Doc—expand the experience for the listener. The disc offers a chance to hear Doc and Merle at their best, while also casting some light on some great old tunes.
Merle died in 1985, the result of a farm tractor accident, and Doc and Wilkes Community College in North Carolina have been sponsoring a bluegrass/country music festival in his honor—Merlefest—since 1988. His death meant the end of a father/son duo that created such great music. Luckily for us, the music lives on, thanks to Rounder and this fine collection.