Jack Lawrence will always be known for his 25 years as accompanist and flatpicking partner to the legendary Doc Watson. Not a bad item to have on your resumé.
But Jack was already a noted guitarist when Doc took him on in the early 1980s, having spent time with both The New Deal String Band and Bluegrass Alliance. When he joined the Alliance, he was stepping into a spot that had previously been filled by both Tony Rice and Dan Crary. Doc knew who he was getting.
Both during his tenure with Watson, and since Doc’s all-but retirement in recent years, and passing in 2012, Lawrence has performed and recorded as a solo artist. We are reminded of that fact with a new album, Arthel’s Guitar, which showcases Jack on both guitar and lead vocals. It’s a mix of bluegrass and fiddle tunes performed brilliantly with the assistance of Curtis Burch and Dale Meyer on reso-guitar, Wayne Benson on mandolin, Don Lewis and Shadd Cobb on fiddle, Steve Lewis on banjo, Ron Shuffler on bass, and Jody Call on drums and percussion.
If that wasn’t enough, Jack also includes a pair of previously-unreleased studio tracks recorded in 1986 with Doc Watson and T. Michael Coleman, when they were working as a trio following the death of Merle Watson. The first is a medley of flatpick favorite St. Anne’s Reel with fiddle tune Whistling Rufus. That cut is followed by the same trio on Ten Miles to Deep Gap, a tune of Jack’s.
It’s so nice to hear Doc’s guitar again for the first time on these tracks, and to contrast his lovely tone in that distinctive, almost primitive style, with Jack’s more adventurous and modern approach. We also get to hear Doc on clawhammer banjo on Ten Miles To Deep Gap, which closes the album.
But the real star here is Lawrence’s new music. The record opens with a grassy arrangement of The Byrds’ Lover Of The Bayou, followed by his version of Tough Luck Man, the title track of a Watson album in 1993. Other strong songs include Reno & Smiley’s You’re No Longer A Sweetheart Of Mine, Lester Flatt’s I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome, and Bob Dylan’s Walking Down The Line, all presented in Jack’s gravelly baritone.
For flatpicking fans there are two new tunes, Arthel’s Guitar and Fiddlefoot, plus a lively cut of the old classic, Goodbye Liza Jane. The title track is named for the guitar which Doc gave to Jack, and is pictured on the album cover. This is the one Watson used for his early recordings, before his relationship with Gallagher.
In a piece he wrote for us remembering Doc on the first anniversary of his death back in May, Jack revealed how he came to acquire the guitar, and why he brought it out for this record.
“I own the 1945 D-18 Doc used on his early Vanguard records. The story of how I got it is an example of our loving relationship. I would occasionally stay with Doc and Rosa Lee in their home. One morning I got up, grabbed a cup of coffee and went downstairs to the music room. There in the corner I spied an old guitar under a layer of dust. I picked it up, dusted it off and plucked the three strings still attached to a nearly pulled off bridge. About the time I sniffed the soundhole, Doc appeared in the doorway. He said ‘What in the world are you doing?’ I told him the old guitar still had some music left in it and he should get it repaired. He told me he’d worn it out years ago and it wasn’t worth fixing. Over the course of a few years this became a pattern—coffee, music room, dusting, plucking, and sniffing. Doc always said the same thing, ‘One of these days maybe I’ll just give it to you.’ Finally, just before Christmas one year Doc said, ‘Hell, just take it, it’s worthless.’ He just wanted to keep the Grover Rotomatic tuners, the only thing he felt was of value.
I was elated having the guitar I’d listened to on records when I was a kid. After an extensive rebuild I brought the guitar into the recording studio in Nashville where we did two records in five days in December 1989, On Praying Ground and Dear Old Southern Home. It was a cool thing for this guitar to be used on Doc Watson records again, this time by me. I put the guitar in Doc’s hands and he recognized it immediately. He went on and on about how great it sounded and what a good old friend it had been. I could tell by the look on his face he was rethinking his decision to part with it. I leaned over and whispered in his ear, ‘One of these days maybe I’ll just give it to you.’ I used the D-18 on the road and on several of Doc’s records. I pulled it out of retirement for my latest recording, Arthel’s Guitar. I started the recording before Doc’s death but finishing it after his passing was a very emotional experience.”
Arthel’s Guitar is a strong offering, for it’s emotional appeal following the passing of a legend, for its revelation of two undiscovered Watson gems, and for the power of the new tracks on their own merit.
It is available on CD from Lawrence’s web site, and for download at popular digital resellers.