As the title suggests, Songs Doc Didn’t Sing is something of a rarity. A collection of unrelated instrumentals rescued from the vaults and compiled by producer Mitch Greenhill for Fli Records, these orphaned offerings and untended leftovers put the emphasis on father and son’s instrumental acumen. They also find them aided and abetted by such sterling sidekicks as fiddler Byron Berline, drummer Ron Tutt, multi-instrumentalists Sam Bush and Mark O’Connor, and percussionist Pat McInemy, among them. While it’s unclear whether these outings were ever meant for actual release or simply served as warm-up exercises or extemporaneous jams, they offer additional insight into the music of one of the most influential acoustic duos of all time.
Doc’s work speaks for itself, and Merle would likely have furthered his father’s legacy had his own life not been cut short in a freak accident that occurred when the tractor he was driving slipped down an embankment and pinned him underneath. He was only 36 years old at the time. In a reversal of their roles, it was then left to Doc to preserve his son’s memory by attaching Merle’s name to the enduring bluegrass festival he founded in Wilkesboro North Carolina, famously known ever since as MerleFest.
Doc and Merle shared a prolific recording career that began in the mid ’60s and continued at a prolific pace for the next 20 years until Merle’s tragic demise, a series of recordings that won them widespread acclaim, undying reverence from the scores of musicians they influenced in the process, and any number of accolades, including the two Grammys they possessed in tandem. These particular sessions, recorded in the ’80s, offer any number of reasons why.
The focus falls on the men’s paired picking, ably underscored by the instrumental offerings of the musicians who served as support. The adroit fretwork, as represented by the 15 tracks included here — mostly of traditional origin while varying in tone and tempo — make for an easy and accessible listening experience. Naturally then, credit the technical prowess shared in songs like Down Yonder, Fisher’s Hornpipe/Devil’s Dream, and Liza/Lady Be Good, or the wistful melodies served up by Black Pine Waltz, the jaunty Carroll County Blues, and the appropriately upbeat cover of Take Me Out to the Ballgame for bringing those feelings to fruition. In the process, the two men reaffirm the fact that they weren’t simply trendsetters or progressive practitioners, but rather advocates for a sound that was both genuine and germane to the North Carolina mountains they cheerfully called home.
Far from throwaways, these Songs Doc Didn’t Sing ought to be considered mandatory listening for anyone either interested in, or intrigued by, the evolution of bluegrass, grassicana, country blues, folk, and Gospel music as expressed by this father and son over the course of their combined careers. Nope, Doc didn’t sing these songs, but they rise to auspicious realms regardless.