Doc & Merle Watson: Black Mountain Rag

Any reissue that recalls the telepathy of this father/son combination is monumentally worthwhile.

Doc and Merle Watson

Black Mountain Rag

Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2006-09-19
UK Release Date: 2006-10-16

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.