Doc Watson: On Stage

SummaryProduct Details

Format:  CD

Genre:  “Country” (American Folk)

Tracks: 24

Playing time:  71 minutes

Availability (out of 3):  **

Related website(s): www.docsguitar.com

 My rating:  10/10

I like: Stripped down arrangements, varied songs and moods, inclusion of instrumentals, “live” setting

I’m less keen on :  –

 _______________

 

A friend lent me a vinyl edition of this back in the early 1990s. As soon as it began to play I loved it. Years later and after a long search I was delighted when I managed to source it on CD.

I suppose the most accurate way to describe much of Doc Watson’s material is “country” – provided that we use the term as “American folk” rather than as commercial “country” or “Country and Western”.

 

Who? 

Born in 1949 as Arthel Lane Watson, Doc got his nickname (after Sherlock Holmes’ companion) from an audience member at a performance. He died in 2012.

I like his singing; there’s nothing polished or contrived about it, but it’s easy on the ear. Although blind, Doc was a master of two quite distinct guitar styles, too.

He was an adept fingerstyle player, with his right thumb playing a steady bass on the low strings while his fingers played a rippling sequence of notes on the higher ones, to accompany his singing or to play an instrumental break or tune.

He was equally skilled, though, at flatpicking. Holding a flat pick (or plectrum) between finger and thumb he could strum assertively or play rapid, single notes on individual strings. he used this to great effect on old time bluegrass/fiddle tunes or for punchy solos between verses of songs. Doc was also a skilled banjo “picker”.

As well as winning seven Grammy awards, Doc also won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.

Doc and son Merle

doc-and-merle

In this live performance, Doc was joined by his son Merle, named after the legendary country guitar player Merle Travis. Merle Watson was also an accomplished guitar player who developed a love of playing slide guitar. He died in a tractor accident on the family’s farm in 1985 at the age of 36.

The album

contains a wealth – and variety of – material from ballads and spirituals to bluesy songs. There are some fine instrumentals here, too, and even a few children’s songs.

I can’t remember all the tracks on the double vinyl album, but from memory I noticed when I bought the CD that at least one song from the vinyl had been dropped from the CD in favour of two jokes that has evidently been captured on the original master tapes. I think the jokes do add something to the album, and evidence Doc’s warmth and humour.

Given when this was recorded, and that it is “live” I feel that the sound quality is good.

The notes are sparse by present-day standards, but to be fair the original album was released in 1971 when album sleeves were often confined to a front and back cover, and the CD version of the sleeve notes does reflect the original.

The tracks

I can only comment in detail on some of the songs and instrumentals. To my mind, this album has many highlights and I’ll struggle to select a small number of the tracks.

“Brown’s Ferry Blues” starts the album, sung and played at a quick tempo and has some cleanly flat-picked guitar breaks. It’s not strictly a “blues” in the musical sense; rather it’s a light-hearted song about someone feeling down. I don’t know whether it was the opening song of the performance, but it certainly makes a strong start to the album.

“The Wreck Of The 1262” focuses on a recurring theme of American folk music – a train crash. I’m not sure whether this song is based on a specific crash or whether it’s simply generic. Health and safety wasn’t always such an issue as it is nowadays, and pride (or pressure) sometimes made freight crews take risks in order to arrive on schedule!

In this song, however, the “wreck” is caused by brake failure. I like the graphic way that the song describes the scene as the engineer and fireman try to slow down the speeding train, and the starkness of the crash itself:

“She travelled at sixty an hour/ gaining speed every foot of the way

and then, with a crash, it was over/ and there on the track the freight lay.”

It ends with a sobering, religious message; this story “should be a warning to all/ …we can never tell when He’ll call”.

“Deep River Blues” is played and sung by Doc to an arrangement all his own. In his introduction to the song he tells how he got the idea of arranging the Delmore Brothers’ version to a Merle Travis bass style, with the bass strings muted to give a solid, chunky “dum-dum” sound.

Those who play guitar may be gratified to learn that the accompaniment on the higher strings took Doc several years to develop! To me, what makes this song great is the chord progression that echoes the melody, and although as with “Brown’s Ferry Blues” this isn’t strictly a blues song, it most certainly has a bluesy theme and feel to it.

“Billy In The Low Ground”; “Windy And Warm”; “Doc’s Guitar”; “Salt River/Bill Cheatham”  are separate instrumentals that are interspersed among the vocal tracks. “Billy In The Low Ground” is a wonderful fiddle tune that Doc and Merle flat-pick brilliantly. I love the tune and the fast tempo, and it has a lovely second section to the tune.

“Windy And Warm” is a slower tune, but very melodious and, again, I love its second section. “Doc’s Guitar” is, of course, an original composition and Doc once said that it often made him think of kittens playing. “Salt River/Bill Cheatham” is another fast bluegrass tune that ends the gig (apart from an encore).

“Banks Of The Ohio” – those of a certain age may remember a pop version of this by Olivia Newton John. Doc’s voice and that of a female pop star are worlds apart, but this is a fine rendition. To me, Doc’s more down-to-earth voice makes it more credible and poignant. It’s a tragic song about a man who drowned his lover because she refused to marry him.  It ends with his arrest.

“Little Sadie” – Doc once said of this song that much of its impact upon him came from the very matter-of-fact description of the killing of a young woman, the murderer’s attempted flight from justice but subsequent arrest. A banjo replaces one of the guitars on this track (played by Doc?), which I think heightens the up-tempo feel of the melody against the dark lyrics. Again,I love the way that the two instruments echo the melody line, and I am struck by the lack of remorse on the murderer’s part. The impact is enhanced by the song being sung in the first person.

When The Work’s All Done This Fall – as mentioned in my introduction, I loved this album as soon as I heard it, but this was the song that really did it for me. It’s a ta-stampeded-herdale of a homesick cowboy who is counting down the days when the autumn roundup will be complete and he can return home.

Tragically, though, he never does return; one night near the end of the roundup the cattle are spooked by a storm, and stampede. The cowboy tries to turn the herd, but falls from his horse and is fatally injured. The tune isn’t jolly, but its upbeat sound contrasts with the poignancy of the tale and seems to throw it into greater perspective.

“Please write my mother gently and tell her of my fall

for I’ll not see my mother, boys, when the work’s all done this fall..”

Concluding comments

I love the range of material on this album. There are ballads, bluesy songs, a few spirituals and one or two nonsense or children’s songs. There’s nothing high falutin’ about it, no pretentiousness; to me, it’s just plain, honest, American folk music. Some are poignant and moving, others are uplifting. In addition, Doc’s own warmth and humour come across. I also love the stripped-down arrangements and the high quality guitar playing.

My rating: 10/10

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Please note that this blog is non-money making and is simply an attempt to share music that I love. I am anxious however to credit the sources of any illustrations included in my posts.

Photo credits

Doc and Merle Watson:  http://cdn.bluegrasstoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/doc_d18.jpg

Stampeding cattle:  https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=stampeding+cattle&rlz=1C1JZAP_enGB722GB722&espv=2&biw=1034&bih=615&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiOwOCYnZHRAhWZNVAKHYiFCNMQ_AUIBigB#imgrc=Y11amJUg8wpe7M%3A

 

 

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Author: mostlyacousticsteve

My musical interests are mainly (but not exclusively) “folk” and acoustic blues music. I aim to publish a post about every two weeks. Although I'm in my 50s I'm new to blogging - please bear with me. My other interests are playing acoustic guitar, photography and wildlife.

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