Doc Watson - vocals, guitar, banjo, harmonica; Merle Watson - guitar, banjo
Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson was born on March 3, 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 human melting pot of music: masterful at old time mountain music, traditional folk music, and 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 forward. Although their collaboration lasted a relatively brief time they possessed a unique musical chemistry that defied generational limitations and remains vital and fresh to the present day.
This May 1967 Ash Grove performance, recorded when Watson had begun teaming up with his son Merle, is a virtual clinic on nuance and technical proficiency, as can only be exhibited by a true master of acoustic guitar technique. While some of these numbers feature the signature whiskey-soaked woebegone that connects so many to Watson, this is a remarkably upbeat performance capturing him at his jovial, upbeat best. Watson's infectious energy, undeniable joy, and jocular banter keeps the Ash Grove audience fully engaged and his voice, full and powerful, perfectly assimilates with the complex melodic picking that fuels this set.
With the exception of one track featured on his 1964 debut album (the traditional ballad Omie Wise) and one number from each of his 1966 albums (the homesick title track from his classic Southbound album and the ragtime influenced encore of "Dill Pickle Rag" from Home Again) the remainder of this material was not issued on Watson's Vanguard recordings from this vital era. Several of these numbers like the banjo fueled "Cripple Creek" which Watson learned from Bill Monroe or the jazz and blues leanings of "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "St. Louis Blues," have since become standards within their respective genres and Watson's interpretations break down any genre distinctions -- overflowing with originality.
Along with the aforementioned material, which for the most part will be familiar to Watson's fans, other highlights include an outstanding instrumental duet on "Never On Sunday." This features beautiful interlocking finger picking from both musicians and is notable for being one of the songs that first enticed Doc to team up with Merle. As engaging as all of these performances are an equally enjoyable aspect of this recording is Doc Watson's song introductions, which not only convey his humble nature and self-effacing sense of humor but are highly entertaining and educational.
Superb musicianship, first-rate singing that is soulful without ever becoming syrupy and songs that relay the soul of American roots music make this recording an outstanding example of Americana during the waning years of the folk and blues revivals. Watson, now in his late 80s, continues to perform and play music to the present day and remains among the greatest of American musicians -- an inspiration to many. This rare high quality recording from such a vital time in Watson's career can now be added to his many lasting contributions to American music and is yet another wonderful example of one of the most influential flat-pickers of all time. (Bershaw)