The Best of Doc Watson: 1964-1968
REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/03/2012
On May 29, 2012, traditional American music lost an icon as Arthel “Doc” Watson passed away at the age of 89. Watson has long been considered a giant in the acoustic music world, and his virtuosic guitar playing, made all the more amazing by the fact that he was blind, has been attempted and studied by numerous envious guitar players. For the uninitiated, and for longtime fans The Best of Doc Watson: 1964-1968 provides a good cross-section of Watson’s style.
During the period of these recordings, Watson was gaining popularity as the folk scene also rose in popularity. Watson’s approach leaned heavily on the mountain music of his youth, including his heroes Jimmie Rodgers, the Delmore Brothers and the Carter Family. The Best contains some songs that casual country listeners will recognize from more modern versions, such as “Down in the Valley to Pray" and "Shady Grove." Oldies lovers will recognize "Rising Sun Blues" which was popularized by the Animals in 1964, but had existed for decades prior to that in the form Doc sang it, and perhaps in other forms for centuries. This disc also holds some humorous and enjoyable side tracks like "Muskrat," "Intoxicated Rat," and "Crawdad Hole." Other songs are not as good, and the sheer volume of material contained on the disc (23 tracks in all) can be daunting, though not unusual for a compilation album.
The meat of this album comes in some tracks where Doc’s guitar and smooth baritone voice combine for an intoxicating cocktail. Often Doc’s single guitar can sound like two because of his thumb/index finger picking style. This is only enhanced by tracks where he is assisted on guitar by his equally talented son Merle. "Tennessee Stud," "Otto Wood the Bandit," "Blue Railroad Train," and "Grandfather's Clock” are superb.
But if you want two tracks that are essential Doc Watson tunes and ones that will make you a fan for life, "The Train That Carried My Girl from Town" and "Black Mountain Rag" are the tracks to hear. “Train” is a barnburner with fun lyrics and some great Watson guitar picking, while "Black Mountain Rag" is a classic fiddle tune that Watson put to guitar. Listen to this track and realize that it is one blind man playing one guitar and picking with only two fingers. And it is a live track to boot. Acoustic music doesn’t get any better than this.
Watson’s career ebbed and flowed for about 60 years. Even in his later years he still did a steady stream of shows with the help of his grandson Richard, multi-instrumentalist David Holt, or pianist Jeff Little. His presence will be missed but his music will survive.