Since his passing in May 2012, celebrated guitarist Doc Watson has been the subject of several tributes chronicling his numerous decades as a musician. One of the most recent is The Definitive Doc Watson, which has compiled thirty-four songs from Watson’s recordings for the Vanguard and Sugar Hill labels. The two-disc collection touches on everything Watson was known for – smooth vocals, bluesy touches, and of course, the guitar work that has inspired several generations of pickers from numerous genres.
The tracks are arranged in chronological order, beginning with a live 1962 recording of the Carter Family song The Cyclone of Rye Cove. This tale of a deadly tornado that hit southwest Virginia in 1929 is performed quite similarly to the Carters’ recording, simple and stripped down with just Watson and his guitar. Several other tunes featuring a solo performance by Watson follow, one of the best of which is a haunting version of the traditional number The House Carpenter (recorded live in New York City in 1962 or 1963). A laid-back Sitting on Top of the World is also enjoyable, with a nice bluesy groove, as is the murder ballad Little Sadie.
While Watson is best known for his guitar skills, he was also an accomplished old-time banjo player, and several tracks feature his talents in this area. Country Blues is a traditional tune, but Watson’s 1964 arrangement comes from another southwestern Virginia source – Dock Boggs. Watson captures the mountain sound nicely on both this track and Katie Morey, which sounds like a centuries-old ballad, even though it’s an original from 1966, co-written with Dwight Greer.
The second disc includes more collaborations, most significantly with his son Merle, as well as more tunes in the bluegrass style. There are great versions of two Osborne Brothers hits (Big Spike Hammer and Listening to the Rain), both originally recorded at the Watsons’ North Carolina home in 1967, with Merle on banjo and Doc on vocals and guitar. Other highlights of this disc include a well-done Shady Grove from 1968, The Wreck of the Number Nine (a mid-tempo train song), and George Gudger’s Overalls, which offers a bit of humor and a kind message at the end.
Both discs include several of Watson’s most well-known numbers, such as Blue Railroad Train, Tennessee Stud, and Southbound (performed and written with Merle) on the first disc, and the excellent, grassy Greenville Trestle High (featuring Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, Bela Fleck, T. Michael Coleman, and Alan O’Bryant) and Your Lone Journey (written by Watson and his wife Rosa Lee) on the second disc. But what fans will likely enjoy the most are the lesser-known numbers which capture Watson’s distinctive style just as well as the tunes which are instantly connected with his name.
When an artist has such a lengthy career and such a deep catalog of songs, it’s hard to pick just a few songs to accurately represent their style and talent. Collections such as this often rely on either “greatest hits” or the most obscure recordings available. Producer Fred Jasper has found a nice middle ground in selecting the tracks for this album. Although for the casual listener, thirty-four songs might be a little lengthy, the songs have been arranged so that the different styles (old-time, blues, bluegrass, etc.) are spread throughout the collection, providing for some variety in the listening experience. The liner notes also deserve a mention – with two tributes to Watson from Jasper and journalist Derek Halsey, as well as musician and recording information about each of the tunes, fans who like to know where their music came from will certainly be pleased.
The Definitive Doc Watson will likely be a must-have for fans of the legendary picker, especially those who may not have previously invested in many of Watson’s recordings. The album is available now from Sugar Hill Records, and can be purchased from numerous online music retailers.
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