For fans of traditional music, 2012 was a sad year, with bluegrass, folk, and other acoustic genres all losing notable figures. Several of these artists, such as Earl Scruggs, have recently been remembered with tribute albums and collections of their most influential work.
Doc Watson’s family, however, has chosen to honor his memory and legacy as a musician in a slightly different way. Instead of simply compiling a “greatest hits” album, or calling on frequent collaborators and friends to assemble a tribute, Doc’s daughter Nancy has released Milestones: Legends of the Watson Clan. This four-disc collection, which has been in the works for over ten years, features almost one hundred unreleased recordings from Doc and his family, providing a glimpse into the life and world of one of traditional music’s most beloved musicians.
Milestones features a mixture of songs, stories, and narrations, mostly recorded at home by Doc over a fifty-year span. Traditional Appalachian tunes make up the bulk of the album, and are featured alongside pop songs, guitar instrumentals, and recollections of humorous or important family events. The album also includes an extensive liner notes package, showcasing Nancy Watson’s meticulous work in creating a visual family history. Photographs of Doc and other Watson family members are combined with quotes and musician credits in a scrapbook style photo book, making it seem as if you’re getting a glimpse at a treasured family photo album.
Fans who expect to hear an assortment of Doc’s most memorable tunes, such as Tennessee Stud, may be disappointed. There are several songs with a classic Doc sound, such as Deep River Blues and a fun, bluesy cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia (featuring Doc’s son Merle on slide guitar). Other tunes exemplify Doc’s musical talents, such as the home recording of Faded Love, which features excellent guitar work from both Doc and Merle. This tune is spot-on, even though the short clip of conversation at the beginning of the track lets listeners know that Doc and Merle were just sitting around picking.
The majority of the album, however, lets listeners in on another side of Doc’s life, particularly his early years and his family background. The collection’s first disc contains tunes reflecting the Watson family’s Appalachian history and includes unadorned ballads, such as Pretty Saro sung by Doc’s wife Rosa Lee, a haunting Cherokee mourning song performed by Nancy Watson, and several traditional fiddle and banjo tunes featuring Doc’s father-in-law Gaither Carlton. Of these, Shady Grove particularly stands out.
Other tracks show off Doc’s skill on electric instruments. Stardust is a 1950s home recording with Doc on electric guitar and electric bass, singing in a smooth pop style. Somebody Stole My Gal is a fantastic Chet Atkins-style instrumental, while Let’s Be Ready is a 1950s country Gospel tune written by Doc.
Other highlights of the collection include a tender, stripped down version of the 1950s Johnny Mathis love song The Twelfth of Never and a live 1974 recording of Miss the Mississippi and You. While the recording quality is not always the best (as is to be expected with home recordings), the musicianship, particularly on the Doc and Merle collaborations, is top notch.
This album is not one for the casual fan. It is an enjoyable listening experience, but it’s also a learning experience. It takes listeners much deeper into history and traditions than would a simple collection of music, seeming in some aspects more like an archival collection as it chronicles several generations of music making in Appalachia. Most songs include introductions by Nancy, Doc, and other family members, sharing bits and pieces of their family history. Overall, Milestones is a fitting, well-rounded homage to both Doc Watson and the numerous musical styles he affected over his many decades as a musician.
For more information or to purchase this collection, visit www.docwatsonmilestones.com.