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 early show recording from May 4, 1967 is an upbeat performance that covers a wide range of musical territory. The late show presented here expands that musical diversity even further and digs deeper into Doc Watson's extensive repertoire during this vital time in his career.
Unlike the early show, which began with a pair of classic ballads, Watson begins this second show on a very upbeat note, kicking things off with the up-tempo "Sing Song Kitty." Featured on Watson's recently issued Home Again album, as well as his live album recorded at Gerdes Folk City with Jean Ritchie, this is a prime example of the folk tradition and can be traced back not just through decades, but centuries. Essentially a minstrel song and dance tune, this features Watson singing the tongue-twister lyrics and blowing harmonica, while he and Merle tear it up on their acoustic guitars. In a more relaxed manner, Doc and Merle next venture into blues territory with a fine rendition of Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues."
The middle part of this set features two key numbers from the 1965 Doc & Son album, beginning with the train song and tale of a dying hobo, "Little Stream Of Whiskey" and according to Doc's stage banter, the very first time Merle is accompanying him on the early 1930s Alfred Karnes number, "We Shall All Be Reunited." In between the two songs, Doc heads in a more solemn direction and ruminates on the meaning of life (and death) by performing a moving and totally a cappella rendition of the gospel spiritual "Am I Born To Die?"
The set continues with a lively instrumental of "Alabama Jubilee." Another impressive example of Watson's flatpicking technique, this number would be recorded for the Doc Watson In Nashville LP the following year. Incomplete due to the tape stock running out, the recording concludes with a snippet of "Blue Ridge Mountain Blues."
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 another 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)