The Three Pickers

Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs

Rounder, 2003

REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones


On a December night in 2002, three legends came together at the R.J. Reynolds Auditorium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to record a PBS special.  In doing so, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Ricky Skaggs for the first time brought their considerable talents together into one fireball of Appalachian music.  The live album produced from this concert is the Grammy nominated Three Pickers.  Each of these artists is a paragon in their own right, and Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, both around 80 years old at the time of the recording, still turn in a powerful performance despite their age.  Scruggs singlehandedly changed the way the banjo is commonly played, and Doc Watson, though blind, is one of the best fingerpicking guitarists in the world.  Ricky Skaggs is not as old as the other two, but since he started playing with the Stanley Brothers at the age of 17, he should probably be considered the youngest member of the first generation of bluegrass.  He has managed to forge a successful career in both country and bluegrass music.  Bringing them all together on one stage was surely a feat and a gift to traditional music fans everywhere.

Three Pickers is a cornucopia of classic traditional mountain and bluegrass music.  Pulling from a repertoire of classics from Bill Monroe, the Carter Family and others, the three pickers resurrect and refresh many near forgotten songs and include several special guests including Alison Krauss, Doc’s grandson Richard Watson, and Rob Ickes along the way.  Several instrumentals pepper the album and demonstrate the picking proficiency that is the reason these three were brought together.  “Earl’s Breakdown,” and “Soldier’s Joy” are classic instrumentals, and the Celtic flavored “Road To Spencer” is a strong reminder of the roots of Appalachian traditional music which, before being played in the Blue Ridge Mountains was forged in Ireland and Scotland and then transported to America by Scotch-Irish immigrants who moved into the back country.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

In one interlude between songs, Scruggs discusses the development of his particular banjo playing style.  He grew up in a family where his brothers played banjos as well, presumably from the story, in the claw hammer style of playing.  Scruggs says that he simply could not move his fingers that way so he adopted a three finger roll to accomplish the same sound.  In fact, this innovation changed banjo playing completely, since many pickers now prefer his style.

“What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul” and “Who Will Sing For Me” fill in the gospel tracks that are almost obligatory for bluegrass albums, as does a version of “Down In The Valley To Pray,” led by Doc Watson.  Watson recorded this track originally in the 1960’s, but it was made famous by Alison Krauss on the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack as “Down To The River To Pray.”  It is also worth noting that Watson’s original ‘60s version and the one on Three Pickers are lyrically correct, whereas the immensely popular version by Alison Krauss that was heard on Oh Brother mangles the lyrics by implores us to go “down in the river to pray.”  Who goes down in a river to pray? No one – unless you can’t swim, in which case you are probably praying as you drown.  But if you can’t swim why would you end up in the river in the first place?  It doesn’t make much sense.  You go to the river for baptizing, as the scene in the movie depicts while the song plays, but you go to the valley to pray.  Perhaps in accepting the popular Krauss version we betray the fact that we have forgotten where to pray?  At any rate, we can thank Doc for reminding us.

Other stellar performances on the album include a Carter Family tune called “The Storms Are On The Ocean,” which has beautiful harmonies contributed by Alison Krauss.  Krauss also participates on the Watson led “Banks Of The Ohio,” which starts out sounding like the prettiest sappiest song you ever heard about a man and his true love and then hilariously turns into an account of a man’s murder of his girlfriend due to a spurned marriage proposal.  Barn burners “Ridin' That Midnight Train” and “Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms” would make the foot of someone who hates bluegrass instinctively tap. 

Three Pickers is an excellent live album that serves as a sampler to for classic bluegrass and old-time mountain music.  With the passing of Earl Scruggs on March 28, 2012, the bluegrass world lost another of the first generation of bluegrass musicians and another tie to the classic era was severed.  Thankfully, this concert album will hold up for future generation to know the talent those musicians had.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2012 Curtis Jones and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rounder, and is used for informational purposes only.