Doc Watson - vocals, guitar, banjo, harmonica; Guest: Al Ross - 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 led 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 '50s, interest in folk and bluegrass grew in the US and 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 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 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 1965 Ash Grove performance, recorded shortly after the release of Watson's debut solo album for Vanguard (and a year prior to 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 folk and bluegrass picking. It also captures Watson at his jovial, upbeat best. While many of the numbers feature the signature whiskey-soaked woebegone that connects so many to Watson, his infectious energy, undeniable joy, and jocular banter keeps the audience engaged. Watson's voice is full and powerful, and it perfectly assimilates with his complex, melodic picking.
For longtime fans, this recording will be a revelation. With the exception of one track featured on his debut album (the dark "St. James Hospital" based on "Cowboy's Lament") and two numbers dating back to his early 1960s Folkways recordings with Ashley (the Christian spiritual "Hick's Farewell," performed a cappella, and "Walking Boss," performed on banjo), the remainder of the material included in this set was not issued on Watson's recordings from this vital era. Additionally, toward the end of the set, guitarist Al Ross joins Watson on the Ash Grove stage. The three numbers where they perform together will astound (and frustrate) any aspiring acoustic guitar players who dare to listen.
In addition to the aforementioned material, other highlights include outstanding live performances of Jimmy Roger's ballad "Hobo Bill's Last Ride" and an engaging sequence focused on Andrew Jenkins' ballad, "The Death Of Floyd Collins." On the latter, Watson educates listeners, while displaying his distinct sense of humor, by performing the song both in his own interpretation and by first doing a dead-on imitation of the original Vernon Dalhart recording, complete with whiny vocals.
However, it is the last four songs, three of which include Al Ross dueling it up with Watson, that will dazzle and confound all listeners. From a high velocity read of the Texas flavored "Deep Elum Blues," directly followed by Watson and Ross' smoking hot interplay on "Margie," these are prime examples of Watson's technical virtuosity. The same can be said for the concluding numbers, in which Watson performs an unbelievably fast version of the Delmare Brother's classic "Brown's Ferry Blues" alone and concludes the night by inviting Ross to the stage again for one final blowout on the vintage fiddle tune, "Ragtime Annie."
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 peak era of the folk and blues revivals. Watson, now in his late 80s, continues to perform and play music to this day and remains among the greatest of American musicians, an inspiration to many. This rare, high quality recording can now be added to Watson's many lasting contributions to American music and is yet another wonderful example of one of the most influential flat-pickers of all time.
Written by Alan Bershaw