"There's a lot of different kinds of blues tunes, and some of them aren't really blues at all; they just have sort of a blues flavor," teaches Doc Watson in his introduction to "Lost John". There could be no more fitting epitaph for Watson's Trouble in Mind, the second release in his career retrospective series on the Sugar Hill label. Following on the heels of Foundation: The Doc Watson Guitar Instrumental Collection, Trouble In Mind is a worthy attempt to showcase Watson as no mere figment of the '60s folk revival, but as long-traveled blues artist.
Watson made his first splash in the burgeoning New York folk scene with revelatory solo sets at the legendary Gerde’s Folk City in 1962. It is most likely because Sugar Hill already released a stand-alone document of those evenings on Doc Watson at Gerde’s Folk City that Trouble in Mind commences with Watson’s subsequent recordings. Caught in the maelstrom now parodied so properly in the silver screen’s A Mighty Wind, Watson immediately became a hero and champion of the “folk” scene. Famously derided by Bob Dylan as “a bunch of fat people”, the ‘60s folk movement was more properly a constrained and narrow genre of incredibly popular music that made pariahs of those who challenged or experimented with its well-defined borders. The name-caller himself suffered eternal exile for his electric audacity at Newport. Hence it is only after forty years that, without worrying about compromising his folk credibility, a case can safely be made for Watson as a true bluesman.
But that was obvious from the beginning. Watson’s early Gerde’s sets included the obvious “St. Louis Blues” and “Milk Cow Blues”, along with the old standard “Little Sadie”. His banjo plucking is highly influenced by his mentor, and country blues legend, Clarence Ashley; Mississippi John Hurt taught both Doc and his son Merle the fingerpicking guitar that brought all three renown. The blues has been a pervasive and direct influence on Watson throughout his entire career, and this truth is both the strength and weakness of Trouble in Mind.
There are many arbitrary borders that separate the incredibly close musics often referred to as “folk” and “blues”. One could make a case that these two genres are in fact one and the same: blues focuses more on improvisation while folk on storytelling, folk harmonizes in human voices while blues turns to multiple instruments, folk music is made by white people, and blues by black people. Ultimately, any and all of these distinctions are as helpful as they are ridiculous. Into the midst of this fray steps the phrase, coined by Samuel Charters in his influential book of the same title, the “country blues”. Standing between folk and blues, black and white, lead lines and lyrical harmony, the country blues is the category of non-committal.
So is Doc Watson folk, blues, country, bluegrass, or country blues? Despite the case Trouble in Mind attempts to build, it simply doesn’t matter. Watson is a consummate musician on guitar or banjo; his low baritone is as expressive as it is comforting. His fingers can tumble brilliant rolls down the neck to highlight the lyrics of “Gambler’s Yodel”; they can drive a chugging guitar to mimic the train carrying “Lost John” away. Watson’s picking not only summons beautiful melodies out of the banjo’s five strings, but also conjures up the ghosts of the legendary Dock Boggs at every turn. His unaccompanied harmonica is a full orchestra on “Rain Crow Bill”, and Watson plays role of both Sonny and Terry on the aforementioned “Lost John”. Lyrically, Watson is not afraid to lend his creativity even to this batch of standards; his “Stackolee” is as derivative of the thousand versions of the classic tale as it is Doc’s own story. Watson’s musicianship and deep dedication to music of any variety is made clear by a one-off comment he makes to the crowd introducing a live version of “Deep River Blues”, when he explains of fitting the Delmore’s standard into Merle Travis’ lead style, “It took me 10 years to learn this!”
Trouble in Mind is an excellent retrospective of Doc Watson’s long recording career. If at times it lacks the intensity that makes Live at Gerde’s so essential, Trouble in Mind creates an atmosphere of down-home relaxation that can’t help but comfort. The longer-standing Watson fans already have in their collections many of the tracks that are on this anthology, as—honorably—no novelties, rarities, or outtakes have been included to induce the dedicated fan spend sixteen bucks on one new song. For the newer inductee, Trouble in Mind is as good an introduction to the music of this master as any: It is more accessible than the completely acoustic Foundation, broader and more mature than Live at Gerde’s. For whatever you are inclined to call it—folk or blues or in-between—Watson’s voice and voicings create music of a style well-known to all of us; on Trouble in Mind, we have the opportunity to taste these old favorites with a flavor all Doc’s own.