Doc Watson Portrait North Carolina flatpicker Arthel "Doc" Watson (1923-2012) was one of the towering figures of the bluegrass and old-timey music revival. A traditional singer straight from the backwoods, Watson grew up in a musical family, but he remained "undiscovered" for many years until he was drawn into the orbit of the '60s folk revival. His popularity at the Newport Folk Festival resulted in a recording contract with the Folkways label, and in the 40-plus years since then, he has made one great record after another. For several decades Doc Watson recorded with his son, Merle Watson, until 1985, when Merle died in an agricultural accident (the tractor he was driving flipped over), ending one of folk music's greatest partnerships. This is a quick look at Doc and Merle Watson's recorded work, some of the sweetest music this side of heaven.




Discography

Doc Watson "Old Time Music At Clarence Ashleys, v.1" (Folkways, 1961) (LP)


Doc Watson "Old Time Music At Clarence Ashleys, v.2" (Folkways) (LP)


Doc Watson & Jean Ritchie "Jean Ritchie And Doc Watson At Folk City" (Folkways, 1962)


Doc Watson "The Watson Family" (Folkways, 1963/1990)
Doc Watson and his wife Rosa Lee, her father, Gaither Carlton, and others all take turns singing the old songs or strumming along; Doc's son Merle also performs on these low-key early recordings, with a nice mix of secular and religious tunes, historical ballads and childrens songs. It's the same repertoire Watson built his reputation on, but glorious to hear in its wider original context. The irony of these recordings is that when folklorist Ralph Rinzler first came down to North Carolina and met Doc Watson, Doc was playing electric guitar in a country band, and it was only by accident that Rinzler discovered that Watson was also an accomplished traditional picker. This album has been expanded on since its original release, and includes material recorded between 1960-65, as well as some material from the mid-'70s, all of it quite nice.


Doc Watson "Doc Watson" (Vanguard, 1964)


Doc & Merle Watson "Doc Watson And Son" (Vanguard, 1964)


Doc Watson "Southbound" (Vanguard, 1966)
Another fine Doc & Merle outing (Merle only gets credit in small print)... The usual mix of classic old-timey tunes, folk ballads and bluegrass songs, with the friendly, mellow Watson edge. This disc seems a bit softened by stylistic nods towards the contemporary Folk scene, but is still top-notch.


Doc Watson "Home Again" (Vanguard, 1966)


Doc Watson & Flatt & Scruggs "Strictly Instrumental" (Columbia, 1967)
A major meeting of talent here, even if F&S's glory days were well behind them and they were kind of phoning 'em in by the time these sessions were made. There's plenty of great picking, and a uniformly high level of musicianship, but there are also plenty of the tropes of the Columbia studios that get in the ways (what was up with those harmonica tootles from Charlie McCoy, for example?) Still, this disc is worth checking out if you're a picker, or into hearing some high-class picking, even if the music itself flags at times... Also features Josh Graves doling out a few perfunctory dobro riffs... Too much of a standard-issue Music City project to really be fun, but still kinda nice..


Doc Watson "Good Deal: Doc Watson In Nashville" (Vanguard, 1968)
Speaking of Music City, Doc Watson dives into the deep end of the pool, hosting a set with heavyweight Nashville session players such as pianist Floyd Cramer, drummer Buddy Harman, bassist Junior Huskey, Grady martin on guitar and some fine fiddlin' by Tommy Jackson and Buddy Spicher. Just to keep things a little bit down-home, truegrasser Don Stover sits in on banjo...


Doc & Merle Watson "Ballads From Deep Gap" (Vanguard, 1971)


Doc Watson "Doc Watson On Stage" (Vanguard, 1971)


Doc Watson "Elementary Doctor Watson" (Poppy, 1973)
A fab set of standards drawing from pop and hillbilly repertoires, leaning heavily on country oldies such as the Delmore Brothers' "Freight Train Boogie," Grandpa Jones' "I Couldn't Believe It Was True," Gershwin's "Summertime" and Tom Paxton's folk classic, "Last Thing On My Mind" (a version that many fans consider the best...) and a lovely closing version of the sweet, sentimental "Treasures Untold." Great stuff, of course. Nice to hear Doc an Merle working with a banjo prominently featured in the mix!


Doc & Merle Watson "Then And Now" (Poppy/United Artists, 1973)


Doc & Merle Watson "Two Days In November" (Poppy/United Artists, 1974)


Doc Watson "Memories" (United Artists, 1975)
A fine double LP, with a young Sam Bush among the pickers, playing fiddle and mandolin.


Doc & Merle Watson with Frosty Morn "Doc And The Boys" (United Artists, 1976)
Another nice record (Doc could do not wrong!) Interesting historical note: future Nashville heavyweights Garth Fundis and Allen Reynolds were singing backup on a few tunes here; later, they would each go on to become some of the most important record producers in town!


Doc Watson "Lonesome Road" (United Artists, 1977)
Doc Watson "Look Away!" (United Artists, 1978)

Two somewhat atypical Doc & Merle albums from the late '70s, originally released on the United Artists label. On 1977's Lonesome Road the bluegrass legends use ...gasp!... a snare drum set on most tracks, which creates an overt link to the world of rock'n'roll (where they definitely had a few fans!). This album was a bit ungainly, but it's always nice to hear Doc indulging his bluesy side. Look Away, from 1978, sheds the drums, but keeps the alt.country attitude, and is, in the final analysis, a pleasant little surprise... one of the overlooked gems in Watson's back catalog, as a matter of fact. I've always been partial to Doc's versions of "You Two-Timed Me Once Too Often" and " 'Rangement Blues," both of which used to be played all the time on KFAT, back in the good old days. I'm pretty pleased to see these two albums back in print on CD!


Doc & Merle Watson "Live And Picking" (United Artists, 1979)
A live set recorded at the venerable Great American Music Hall in San Francisco (one of the finest venues in the world!) T. Michael Coleman of Frosty Morn sits in with Doc & Merle, and the pickin; is mighty fine.


Doc Watson & Chet Atkins "Reflections" (RCA, 1980)
Two good-natured superpickers get together to knock out several dazzling instrumental duets and a few jovial novelty tunes. Their hearty rendition of "Don't You Monkey With My Widder When I'm Gone" is a highlight, but in truth, the whole album is quite nice. Recommended!


Doc & Merle Watson "Red Rocking Chair" (Flying Fish, 1981)
Another elegant, low-key, enjoyable album... Maybe not their most memorable, but packed with sleek, silky picking and fun songs. I could live without the triangle and wind chimes on "Below Freezing," but the title track is great and the financial woes described on "How Long Blues" are timeless. Sweet stuff


Doc & Merle Watson "Doc And Merle Watson's Guitar Album" (Flying Fish, 1983)


Doc & Merle Watson "Down South" (Sugar Hill, 1984)


Doc & Merle Watson "Pickin' The Blues" (Flying Fish, 1985)
Doc & Merle Watson "Sittin' Here Pickin' The Blues" (Rounder, 2004)

A flat-out fabulous album, with the Watsons gently strumming their way through standards like "Story Weather" and "St. Louis Blues..." An expanded CD version, called Sittin' Here Pickin' The Blues, includes a fine selection of eight other tunes from various albums, "John Henry," "Any Old Time," and Doc's version of Tom Paxton's warm & fuzzy tribute to a great folk-revival bluesman, "Did You Hear John Hurt?", which Watson embues with a very personal feel, adding his own memories of pickin' with Hurt at the old folk festivals. Both versions of this album are a delight... Nobody makes the blues sound sweeter than Doc and Merle!


Doc Watson "Ridin' The Midnight Train" (Sugar Hill, 1986)


Doc Watson "Portrait" (Sugar Hill, 1987)


Doc Watson & Clint Howard "Favorites" (Sugar Hill, 1988)


Doc Watson "Songs For Little Pickers" (Alakazam, 1990)


Doc Watson "On Praying Ground" (Sugar Hill, 1990)


Doc & Richard Watson "Feeling The Blues" (Sugar Hill, 1990)
Recorded with Merle's son, Richard Watson.


Doc Watson "My Dear Old Southern Home" (Sugar Hill, 1991)


Doc Watson & Frosty Morn "Remembering Merle" (Sugar Hill, 1992)


Doc Watson "Docabilly" (Sugar Hill, 1995)


Doc & Merle Watson "Watson Country" (Sugar Hill, 1996)


Doc Watson & David Grisman "Doc & Dawg" (Acoustic Disc, 1997)
A collaboration with newgrass mandolin master David Grisman... sweet stuff!


Doc Watson/Del McCoury/Mac Wiseman "Del, Doc & Mac" (Sugar Hill, 1998)
A swell collaboration between three of the most authentic, most moving, and most important traditional artists in the bluegrass/old-timey firmament. Each takes his turn singing, with accompaniment that is nothing less than stellar, and the results are precious and magical... Doc is sounding kind of old on here, but still drenched with soulfulness and warmth... A very nice record... highly recommended!


Doc & Merle Watson "Home Sweet Home" (Sugar Hill, 1998)
On principle, I'm fairly leery about any projects that involve overdubbing or remixing archival material, particularly when the new version interjects musicians that weren't around when the original music was made. But I gotta admit, this disc, which builds off of some long-lost sessions recorded by Doc & Merle back in 1967, does sound purty good. And with Sam Bush, T. Michael Coleman, Alan O'Bryant and Marty Stuart as the "backup" band, I guess we shouldn't be too surprised. Coulda been all wrong, but it's not. Worth checking out!


Doc & Richard Watson "Third Generation Blues" (Sugar Hill, 1999)
Doc and his grandson, Richard, work through a standard-issue set of fine acoustic folk-blues tunes. While you can listen to these recordings with great affection -- it's the same Watson family magic -- Doc's age is showing in his voice. This is lovely stuff, though certainly not his best work... Nice to see the next generation stepping up to the plate, though!


Doc Watson "At Gerdes Folk City" (Sugar Hill, 2001)


Doc Watson & Frosty Morn " 'Round The Table Again" (Sugar Hill, 2002)


Doc Watson/Ricky Skaggs/Earl Scruggs "The Three Pickers" (Rounder, 2003)
Riffing on the whole "Three Tenors" opera phenomenon, three bluegrass master musicians join forces for a warm, friendly session, originally filmed for broadcast on public television. The congratulatory back-slapping wears a bit thin ("You're the greatest, Doc!" "No, you are, Ricky!"), but the music is top-notch. When Skaggs sings, Watson picks or Scruggs does one of those amazing banjo rolls, it's simple perfection in action. The current queen of bluegrass, Alison Krauss, sings along on a trio of tunes, and musicians drawn from the cream of the truegrass pickers -- including Skagg's band, Kentucky Thunder -- back them up on most tunes. Both Watson and Scruggs are still amazingly deft and soulful at their art, even though Skaggs kind of dominates at times.




Best-Ofs

Doc Watson "The Essential Doc Watson" (Vanguard, 1972)
A nice distillation of Doc's early '60s Newport concerts... A classic, omnipresent folk album from the early '70s.


Doc Watson "Foundation: The Doc Watson Guitar Instrumental Collection" (Sugar Hill, 2000)
A flatpicking fan's delight. Ya can't beat Doc Watson when he gets those strings a-ringing, although I have to confess being more partial to his vocal numbers, myself. Sixteen sterling examples of Watson's flawless guitar playing, gathered from various old Vanguard albums.


Doc Watson "Trouble In Mind: The Doc Watson Guitar Country Blues Collection" (Sugar Hill, 2003)
Even finer still is this sweet, well-selected set of vocal numbers, again drawing from Watson's Vanguard years. A nice best-of, with classic old-time tunes like "Stack-o-Lee," "Deep River Blues," "Lost John," and "Little Sadie." There's nothing sweeter and more soothing than Doc Watson singing the blues, and this is a mighty fine set drawn from his best years. Recommended!


Doc Watson "Songs From Home" (Capitol, 2002)
Collects songs from his United Artists and Poppy albums of the 1970s... great stuff, of course!


Doc Watson & David Holt "Legacy" (box set) (High Windy Audio, 2002)


Doc & Merle Watson "Black Mountain Rag" (Rounder, 2006)


Doc Watson "Best Of The Sugar Hill Years" (Sugar Hill, 2008)
Like many fans of folk, bluegrass and country music, I revere guitarist Doc Watson as a roots music avatar, one of the most serene and sincere performers in any genre... I have a ton of his music on vinyl and CD and never tire of his gentle voice and masterful picking style. Thus, this new CD collection is doubly wonderful for straying of the beaten track and presenting a set of Watson's later recordings for the Sugar Hill label that are less familiar but no less rich or resonant than his earlier, better-known work on Vanguard. Watson is a rare breed of artist, a master musician whose music never faltered or dropped in quality -- every track on this disc sparkles with depth, beauty and good cheer. A bunch of Appalachian oldies, some sweet gospel tunes, and ballads as well... A bit of pure heaven for all roots music fans!




Other Media

Doc Watson/Ricky Skaggs/Earl Scruggs "The Three Pickers" (DVD) (Rounder, 2003)
Riffing on the whole "Three Tenors" opera phenomenon, three bluegrass master musicians join forces for a warm, friendly session, originally filmed for broadcast on public television. The congratulatory back-slapping wears a bit thin ("You're the greatest, Doc!" "No, you are, Ricky!"), but the music is top-notch. When Skaggs sings, Watson picks or Scruggs does one of those amazing banjo rolls, it's simple perfection in action. Well filmed, with nice sound and plenty of great performances, this is a swell concert film... The current queen of bluegrass, Alison Krauss, sings along on a trio of tunes, and musicians drawn from the cream of the truegrass pickers -- including Skagg's band, Kentucky Thunder -- back them up on most tunes. Both Watson and Scruggs are still amazingly deft and soulful at their art, even though Skaggs kind of dominates at times.




Links

  • Here is a nice, heartfelt tribute to Doc and Merle and their music, including a brief discography page to which I express my gratitude and indebtedness. Thanks!

  • The MerleFest website has a nice biographical entry on Merle, as well as plenty of info about the Watson family's music...






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