Arthel Lane Watson was born on March 3, 1923, in Deep Gap, North Carolina. He is known around the globe as “Doc” Watson. To celebrate Doc’s 89th birthday, I am focusing on one of my favorite Doc Watson projects for this Album of the Week.
Per the advice of the legendary Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson began his solo performances in late 1962. By 1963, Doc’s big break came at the Newport Folk Festival with his first solo album following in 1964. Doc’s music is known around the world and is an icon in bluegrass, folk, blues, and Americana music. He has received eight Grammy awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 2004. As many of you may know, he has reached all of this success without his sight. An eye infection as an infant caused him to go blind. Despite his disability, he has become a larger-than-life figure in the entire music industry.
In 2001, an extremely important collection of recordings surfaced for the first time. Released simply as Doc Watson At Gerdes Folk City, the recordings featured a young Doc Watson in 1962 and 1963 at his first solo performances. Being able to listen to Doc’s most formative performances is magical. Recorded in December of 1962 and February and March of 1963, Doc Watson is taking the spotlight for the first time and you can’t turn away.
Doc’s perfect balance of folk and the blues is evident even in these early recordings. On At Gerdes Folk City, Watson performs his original interpretations of mostly traditional American folk songs. Many of these songs have become bluegrass classics.
One of the great tracks on this album is Doc’s interpretation of The House Carpenter. I mentioned Doc’s version last week in my article on Nickel Creek’s This Side, on which they include a modern rendition of the song. Doc’s performance includes a personal introduction where he shares that he remembered this one from his childhood. He tells the audience that he recalls the melody of the song from his father and father-in-law, and he learned the words from his mother. This brings us back to a time before liner notes and the internet, when lyrics were passed along from one person to another. Doc’s interpretation echoes the sounds of his ancestors, and is one of the most primitive and traditional versions of the song I have heard. The simplicity is captivating.
Little Sadie is another traditional favorite. Most of us are familiar with The Tony Rice Unit’s version on Manzanita, and while Doc’s version may not be as well known, it certainly should be. The raw matter-of-factness with which Doc picks and sings really grabs you. Even at a young age, he is showing maturity well beyond his years, and tackles the song like an old pro. His interpretation is much more traditional than Rice’s more-definitive version, and is definitely worth an exploration.
One of a handful of tunes contemporary to the time which Watson includes here, his version of Grandpa Jones’ Tragic Romance is yet one of the oldest sounding songs on the collection. On this number, Doc is accompanied by Bob Yellin on the banjo. Bluegrass fans may or may not be familiar with this Grandpa Jones song, but they need to be. The song was recorded by several classic country icons including Hank Snow, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins – not to mention The Stanley Brothers. Tales of lost love are staples in our kind of music, and this is one of the best. If you take the Louvin’s I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby, and crank it up a notch, you will have Tragic Romance. This is one of the most traditional songs on the album, and one bluegrass fans should eat up.
Milk Cow Blues has long been a signature Watson tune, and that is evident even in the beginning of his career. One of Doc’s best straight blues numbers, this one shows why genres fail to contain the genius of The Doc. His blues/folk hybrid style is a magical combination which appeals to people from from the city as well as those from rural backgrounds. Tim Shelton (of Newfound Road) once told me,“There are only two types of music: good and bad.” Doc Watson exemplifies this quote. Whether it’s blues, folk, bluegrass, or a mixture, it’s ALL Doc Watson, and it’s ALL good.
Doc Watson At Gerdes Folk City features many other classic songs such as Dream of the Miner’s Child, Lone Pilgrim, and Roving Gambler. While this album is not straight ahead traditional bluegrass, great songs done in simple, yet awe-inspiring ways will never go out of style. Doc’s picking is some of the most highly regarded in any form of music, and his voice is one of the most recognizable as well. I highly recommend this album. Hearing one of our legends in his formative years as the audience of yesterday witnessed him is a real treat.
Doc Watson At Gerdes Folk City was released on Sugar Hill Records (SUG-CD-3934), and can be purchased from the Classic Country Connection or County Sales. The album can be downloaded digitally from iTunes and Amazon Music.
Make sure you go back in time to hear Doc Watson’s first performances At Gerdes Folk City.