Doc Watson - vocals, guitar, banjo; Merle Watson - guitar
Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson was born on March 3rd, 1923 in Deep Gap, North Carolina, the sixth of nine children born to Annie Greene and General Dixon Watson. He was stricken with blindness at age one, as he had a birth defect in the blood vessels of his eyes, which lead to an eye infection that robbed him of his vision. Despite his disability, he staunchly refused to let it deter him from fulfilling his goals and aspirations. Watson fell in love with music at an early age and quickly became interested in playing the guitar. In the late 1950s as interest in folk and bluegrass grew in the U.S., Watson became known as one of the hottest guitar players and banjo pickers. When comedian/banjo-player Clarence Ashley teamed up with Watson at the dawn of the 1960s, they could hardly have predicted what a profound and long lasting influence their music would have. With Ashley as a mentor, Watson, who was primarily an electric guitarist in regional rockabilly and country dancehall bands throughout the 1950s, would soon be recognized for his rich voice and for being one of the most gifted acoustic guitarists in America.
Watson was like a melting pot of music; adept at old-time mountain music and traditional folk music, but equally comfortable playing blues, bluegrass, jazz and popular music styles of the era. Watson would thrill record listeners and live audiences alike with his flat-picking dexterity and a knack for engaging stage banter, a talent Ashley also possessed. This winning combination of talent and personality made the duo one of the shining lights of the folk and blues revivals of the early 1960s. Between 1960 and 1962, Ashley and Watson recorded a series of albums for Folkways (later reissued as a compilation titled The Original Folkways Recordings 1960-1962) that contained a wide variety of classic old-timey folk music and blues that remains a primary inspiration to Americana roots musicians to the present day. Over the course of these classic recordings, one can clearly hear Ashley and Watson progressing. Although their collaboration was brief, they possessed a unique musical chemistry that defied generational limitations that today sounds just as vital and fresh.
This May 1967 Ash Grove performance, recorded when Watson had begun teaming up with his son Merle, is like a clinic on nuance and technical proficiency, as can only be exhibited by a true master of acoustic guitar technique. Watson's infectious energy, undeniable joy, and jocular banter keeps the Ash Grove audience captivated and his voice -- full and powerful -- perfectly assimilates with the complex melodic picking that fuels this set.
The signature whiskey-soaked woebegone that connects so many to Watson is certainly present during the early part of this set, but it then veers into an upbeat performance that covers a wide range of musical territory. The recording begins with the set shortly in progress with the Watsons delivering a lovely rendition of the traditional ballad "Winter's Night"(AKA "A-Rovin' On A Winter's Night'), which had been issued on Doc's Home Again album the previous year. A traditional western American ballad follows with "Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie," followed by "Open Up The Pearly Gates." The fun, upbeat side of Watson's personality begins presenting itself on this third number - a Southern Jubilee spiritual learned from a Monroe Brothers recording.
Few albums in the vast Watson catalogue are more revered than his 1966 album, Southbound and two examples of why is the following sequence. First is a fantastic performance of the Mel Tillis/Wayne Walker instrumental "Walk On Boy," which kicked off Southbound, followed by the title track, an original collaboration between Doc and Merle.
The remainder of the set is pure fun, beginning with Doc catering to a request for "Sheik Of Araby." Despite never having played this song together, this is an enjoyable performance that conveys Watson's sense of humor and innate musical chemistry, as well as their ability to turn even a mundane popular tune into a personal statement.
The set concludes with a pair of dazzling instrumentals, beginning with the traditional fiddle tune, "June Apple." A more impressive example of Watson's flatpicking technique would be difficult to find and this number would surface on the Doc Watson In Nashville LP the following year. This leaves the Ash Grove audience howling for an encore. With Doc switching to banjo, he and Merle tear it up with a fiery reading of "Pick Along," which had recently been recorded for the celebrated Flatt, Scruggs and Watson collaboration album, Strictly Instrumental.
Superb musicianship, first-rate singing that is soulful without ever becoming syrupy and songs that relay the soul of American roots music, make this Ash Grove recording an outstanding example of Americana during the waning years of the folk and blues revivals. Captured during such a vital time in Doc Watson's career, this set can now be added to his many lasting contributions to American music and is yet another shining example of one of the most influential flat-pickers of all time. (Bershaw)