Album of the Week #23 – Doc Watson’s Portrait

Portrait - Doc WatsonLast week, I took a hiatus from my regular Album of the Week column to celebrate the life and legacy of Jimmie Rodgers with a series of Rodgers Remembrances. Hopefully, you enjoyed learning more about the Father of Country Music.

I had announced last Saturday that this week’s Album of the Week would be one I referenced several times last week: Merle Haggard’s tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, Same Train, Different Time. This is a masterpiece, one of the most important albums in the history of country music. I highly recommend checking out this record, and considering its relevance.

However, life has a way of altering our plans. While I had been analyzing my LP of Same Train, Different Time and was ready to showcase one of my favorite records as an Album of The Week, a more pressing matter took over the forefront of our thinking for this week.

Although I had been following all of the Bluegrass Today reports as they were tweeted to my phone, it still hit me hard when I learned that Doc had left this world. It seemed like something that just couldn’t happen.

Maybe it’s because Doc is a larger than life figure.

Maybe it’s because he was a living legend.

Maybe it’s because of the amount of respect the entire music industry had for him.

Maybe it’s because he had overcome his loss of vision.

Maybe it’s because he is one of the greatest acoustic guitar players of all time.

Maybe it’s because he was Doc.

One of the best portraits of Doc Watson is the album simply entitled, Portrait. Featuring such bluegrass all-stars as Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Aln O’Bryant, Mark O’Connor, and Pat Enright, this is a recording everyone can enjoy.

Portrait kicks off with I’m Worried Now. An old Delmore Brothers’ song, it’s a perfect fit for Doc’s distinctive style. The melody is very simple, leaving lots of room for Doc to show off. When Watson was a child, he was heavily influenced by the music of the Monroe Brothers, Charlie and Bill, and elements of the old “brothers” style are clearly evident on this track.

Another key influence on Doc’s guitar style was Jimmie Rodgers, and Portrait features a pair of Rodgers songs: Blue-Eyed Jane and Nobody Knows But Me. A good prison tune, Nobody Knows But Me was co-written by Elsie McWilliams. Doc has recorded more Rodgers tunes than other bluegrass artist, and of those eighteen recordings, this is definitely one of my favorites. Another notable aspect of Doc’s music is his bluesy vocals. Nobody Knows But Me showcases this quite well. His singing on this cut is great. He sounds so believable, you may begin to wonder if Doc had actually been in jail! Jerry Douglas’ dobro really bolsters this recording’s bluesy style. This is an overlooked Watson gem.

Another blues song on Portrait, which is now a Doc Watson classic, is Country Blues. Internationally known as one of the greatest acoustic guitar players of all time, many may not know, or have forgotten, that Doc could also play the banjo in the claw hammer style. On Country Blues, Doc trades his guitar for a five-string and I’m glad he did! With nothing but his voice and the banjo, Doc does, in my opinion, the best version of this old song. The plaintive duet between voice and banjo makes this one of the most lonesome and sorrowful recordings I have ever heard. I suspect you will agree.

Doc showcases his ability as a multi-instrumentalist on the Carter Family’s Storms On The Ocean, possibly my favorite from the Carter catalog. In true Carter fashion, Doc plays the autoharp on this cut, and he shows a captivating tenderness on this recording. Doc later re-recorded Storms On The Ocean on The Three Pickers along with Ricky Skaggs, Earl Scruggs, and Alison Krauss.

I was first drawn to Doc’s music as a child. There’s something so real, so true, and so honest about his music that appeals to the child in everyone. Listening to Doc just seems so right. The singing, the picking, the energy, the emotion – it’s all right. That’s one reason he is loved by millions around the globe.

Doc does many other great songs on Portrait including Leaving London, Risin’ Sun Blues (House of the Rising Sun), and Prayer Bells of Heaven. Portrait is a great showcase for Watson’s talent and diversity. A master of many styles, Doc does it all on this album – a true portrait of Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson.

Doc Watson released Portrait on Sugar Hill Records (SH-CD-3759) in 1987. It can be purchased through Classic Country Connection or County Sales, and can also be digitally downloaded through iTunes or Amazon MP3.

R.I.P., Doc.

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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel is from southwestern Ohio and has been around bluegrass his entire life. He manages the Classic Country Connection, a music store in southern Ohio which specializes in bluegrass, classic country, gospel, and Americana music. He is the host of the Bending The Strings radio program, which plays a variety of bluegrass, newgrass, and Americana music. He also maintains the website for Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers. photo by LuAnn Adams

  • Jack Lawrence

    This album is special to me. It was the first of a half dozen or so I recorded with Doc over the years. I remember being surprised at how many guitar solos he wanted me to do. We had been playing together for a couple of years at that point and on our gigs I soloed as much as he did. that continued for over 25 years. He was always very gracious in that respect with everyone who ever joined us on stage. We laid Doc to rest yesterday. In the coming weeks I’ll try to post some remembrances as I come to grips with the loss of an old friend.

    Jack Lawrence, journeyman guitarist

  • Jim Brown

    Jack, this is really AMAZING! Yesterday, I rediscovered PORTRAIT via Spotify. It’s my favorite Doc Watson album, but I hadn’t heard it in a good 20 years. In 1987, I moved from Memphis, Tennessee to the Poconos in Pennsylvania, and somewhere along the way I stopped into a record shop and bought the cassette of this. I don’t know when I was as overwhelmed by a single record! I loved Doc, saw him many times and have heard many albums – but this really stood out for me.

    Anyway, after posting a few links to these songs on Facebook yesterday, a friend, Tom Ramsey, asked if you were playing on this. I told him I thought I’d heard him say, “Play it, Jack” (or something like that) on one track. But I didn’t know for sure. Then this morning, I Googled on the album, and found this nice review and your comment. As I hear the old Doc songs, it makes me miss him, but in a greater sense, it leaves me thankful that his music is still with us. I’m sure you have TONS of great memories. What a great man!