Doc Watson On Stage

Doc Watson Featuring Merle Watson

Vanguard, 1970

REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones


Doc Watson took to the stage in 1970 at Cornell University and the Town Hall in New York with his son Merle Watson to record an album that rivals any Smithsonian Folkways recordings for its value as an artifact of folk music history. By 1970, Watson’s guitar picking and encyclopedic knowledge of American folk music was already well known and respected, even though the folk revival was already on the wane. The addition of his son, whose picking talent rivaled his own, doubled the power of their delivery. Doc Watson On Stage is part entertainment, part musicology lesson, and entirely wonderful.

Watson approached the album as one that could educate the audience and listener on the various styles of music in the folk genre. He precedes several songs with an explanation of the origins of the tune.  For example, "The Wreck Of The 1262" is given as an example of the freight train as a fixture of the genre, but also the celebration of heroism that comes with those who lose their life trying to do their jobs. "Spikedriver Blues" is a tribute to the music of Mississippi John Hurt, and Merle plays an exquisite fingerpicked accompaniment to this track. This, along with "Roll On Buddy," is given as an example of the hard working spike driver/railway worker blues. There are also excellent examples of old time fiddle tunes played on the guitar, which is how Watson started figuring out his own style of playing. One such track that is impeccably played is "Billy In The Low Ground."my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The standout track for this album is a tune called “Deep River Blues.” Before the song, Watson explains the history of the tune and the origin of how he came to play it as he did. He notes the influence of Merle Travis, and demonstrates the plucking of the bass notes with his thumb. Then, he begins to play the lead note with his index finger, which will just blow you away. The sound of the thumb and index finger playing two separate tracks, like a left hand playing differently from the right on the piano, is amazing. Watson himself says before the track that it took him ten years to get to that point. It is the quintessential Doc Watson track.

There are a couple of humorous throwaway tracks found here as well: "Life Gits Teejus Don't It," "The Clouds Are Gwine To Roll Away," "Movin’ On," and the spoken word joke, "The Preacher And The Bicycle."  His tribute to the late Jimmie Rodgers and early country music is “Jimmy’s Texas Blues,” which illustrates the intersection between country and folk music from the early days of popular country.  “Banks Of The Ohio” has some of the best fingerpicked guitar on it, and it is an ironically beautiful song for a murder ballad.

There are 25 tracks in all on this double vinyl album, so it is difficult to do them all justice.  Suffice it to say that Doc Watson On Stage is a necessary inclusion in any collection of Americana music. It’s historically interesting with Watson’s love for the background of songs, but it is executed in a musical fashion that is so intricate yet so seemingly effortless that it could almost be missed.

Rating: A

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© 2015 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 Vanguard, and is used for informational purposes only.