Doc Watson - guitar; Howdy Forrester - fiddle; Bill Keith - banjo; Roger Bush - string bass; Joe Val - mandolin
The 1968 Newport Folk Festival typified an eclectic transitional year in American musical history, when many of the leading folk, blues, and bluegrass musicians had begun to fully embrace a lack of musical boundaries. The lines between traditional and contemporary music had become more blurred than ever, and the programming for the 1968 festival reflected this, with a wider range of talent featured than ever before. The July 27th evening programming, which began with an unscheduled performance by blues man Mississippi Fred McDowell and culminated in the highly charged Newport debut of Big Brother & The Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin just days before Cheap Thrills was released) strongly reflected this musical diversity.
Prior to the launch of that evening's programming, a fascinating and unique backstage jam session occurred. Seizing on the moment, festival director George Wein had the crew mic up the musicians and piped them through the festival's PA system while the audience settled in and the stage was being prepared for that evening's schedule. For the first time ever, listeners can now enjoy this previously unheard jam, which featured an astonishing roster of folk and bluegrass musicians winging it and thoroughly enjoying performing together in this configuration for the first and only time.
Later introduced by Wein as "our impromptu country band," this remarkable jam essentially revolves around Doc Watson. In the late 1950s, interest in folk and bluegrass grew in the US, and Watson became known as one of the hottest guitar players around. 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 as one of the most gifted acoustic guitarists in America. Watson was a true 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 has always had a strong affinity for high energy fiddle tunes and collaborating with him for the first time ever (and strongly influencing the material tackled here) is Howdy Forrester, a veteran of the Grand Ole Opry stage and long-time member of Roy Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys. Forrester is largely responsible for popularizing the Texas or show fiddle style that would enamor countless bluegrass musicians in the decades to come. The other primary soloist here is banjo legend, Bill Keith, near the tail end of his tenure in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Providing the bottom end is ex-Kentucky Colonel Roger Bush, well respected for his work with that group and its leading lights, Clarence and Roland White. Bush would later team up with Byron Berline and Kenny Wertz in Country Gazette and the Flying Burrito Brothers. These extraordinary musicians form the core of this impromptu configuration. If that isn't enough to thoroughly tantalize listeners, mandolin player Joe Val, then a member of the groundbreaking Charles River Valley Boys (who had taken the bold step of recording Beatles' songs in a bluegrass format), is also enticed to join in.
Together, as George Wein declares at the conclusion, they set a wonderful mood that entertains the Newport audience as they settle in and the stage is prepared for the July 27th evening program. Just as impressive as this unique lineup is the nature of the recording, which not only conveys the nuances and interaction between these superb instrumentalists, but also clearly captures the banter between them, both during the performances and between each number as they determine what to tackle next.
This recording kicks off shortly in progress with the core musicians, Watson, Forrester, Keith and Bush tearing up the deceptively titled "Nothing To It," a number Watson recorded twice two years prior, both for his own 1966 Vanguard album, Southbound and on the Strictly Instrumental album that he recorded with Flatt & Scruggs that same year. These musicians obviously enjoyed playing together and that feeling permeates every note right from the start. Doc calls out for solos, with Bill Keith taking flight first, followed by Howdy Forrester, before Watson's complex, melodic flat picking brings it back home.
Prior to the next number, Watson can be heard pulling Joe Val aside, encouraging him to join in and whispering a suggestion (unfortunately inaudible) that he says Howdy will appreciate, demonstrating the playfulness going on backstage. When someone suggests "Greensleeves," Watson vetoes it, stating he wants to keep the hoedown feel going, which no doubt pleased Forrester. This is followed by a suggestion for "Wagoner's Lad," which everyone seems keen on, but while they are tuning back up, Watson gets the hankering for "Billy in the Lowground," which they kick right into next, with Forrester leading the way and now with Joe Val joining the fray on mandolin.
Following this, Forrester can clearly be heard expressing to Doc how thrilled he is to finally get an opportunity to play together. A soundcheck happening on stage can also be heard in the background, as the musicians determine if they should continue. Getting word that George Wein has approved another song, they determine what to play next, deciding on James Talley's "Red Wing," best known for Woody Guthrie's recording. Again, with Forrester leading the way, these musicians take flight, creating a wonderful interpretation that showcases Val, Watson, Keith, and Forrester each taking a turn soloing in succession.
Following this, there is again some confusion whether to continue or not, but with the musicians clamoring to play one more, they receive the go-ahead from Wein. Someone suggests "Sweet Georgia Brown," but Watson again vetoes it. Knowing the answer will be yes, Watson then inquires if everyone knows "Fire on the Mountain," a classic from his era with Clarence Ashley, who had passed away the previous year. With that, this remarkable configuration concludes the impromptu jam with "Fire on the Mountain" featuring beautiful interplay between guitar and fiddle, before Forester calls out for Watson to take a solo, providing yet another fine example of his technical virtuosity. Both Keith and Val each follow with impressive solos of their own. Shortly after the two-minute mark, Watson can be heard exclaiming, "Let's take it for a ride!" This triggers the number into overdrive, and the musicians enter high-velocity mode, with Watson peeling off a solo that will astound (and frustrate) any aspiring acoustic guitar players who dares to listen. Bill Keith and Joe Val each follow again, with high energy solos of their own. The enthusiasm for what's going down is clearly audible, and with Howdy Forrester's final flight, this intriguing jam session comes to a spirited close.
Clearly enamored and a little bit flustered, festival director George Wein takes the stage and insists that the musicians come up and take a bow prior to the evening program commencing. He explains to the audience that everyone will be performing again later in their respective groups, before announcing that the first performer of the evening will be another unscheduled treat, Mississippi Fred McDowell. (Also available here in the Concert Vault.)
Watson and Keith, now among the greatest of American musicians, continue to perform and record and are an inspiration to many. This recording is a wonderful example of a most influential fiddle player and one of the most influential banjo pickers joining one of America's greatest acoustic guitarists and certainly the greatest flat picker ever. Playing together for the sheer joy of spontaneous collaboration, all five of these musicians shine brightly indeed. Despite being unrehearsed (or perhaps because of it), a compelling musical chemistry occurs here. This is music that transcends time and generational boundaries. Despite being recorded well over four decades ago, these performances still sound vital and fresh today.
Written by Alan Bershaw