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March 3, 2008

Doc Watson

Doc Watson is a treasure trove of American music. His influences and repertoire draw from old-time country music, blues, jazz, bluegrass, rock & roll, folk, and gospel. He is a master of every instrument he plays: banjo, harmonica, mouth-bow, and especially guitar. He invented a style of guitar playing that changed how the instrument was conceived-of and played forever. AND, he's a fine singer and an engaging raconteur. But beyond all his amazing musical skills, there is a warmth and kindness to his presence that comes through all his songs and stories, and resonates very deeply.

Blind since childhood, Arthel "Doc" Watson would fiddle with just about anything that made a sound. He made a mouth-bow out of some wire tied to the front porch. His father got him a harmonica one Christmas, and ever after that got him a new one each Christmas because the old one had been played until the reeds wore out. When Doc was 10, his father built him a fretless banjo (using the skin from their freshly deceased 23-year-old cat). At 13 he got his first guitar. He would try to play anything he heard, until he was able to hear a tune once and play it perfectly on the guitar. He got a fiddle when he was 18, but gave it up after a year. Instead, he learned to play fiddle tunes on his guitar, and in the process blew open a whole new world for folk, country, and bluegrass guitar players.

"Doc Watson elevated the role of the acoustic guitar to the status of a lead instrument in American traditional music - right along side of the fiddle and banjo. Before Doc, the guitar was used primarily as a rhythm instrument in a supporting role. Doc raised the bar with his playing, and set a new standard for guitarists to achieve." --Doc's Guitar

Though he was initially billed at an "authentic folk musician" during the folk revival, Doc was no ignorant hillbilly. He had listened to everything: jazz, pop, blues, and contemporary songs as well as the old ballads and fiddle tunes he grew up with. He had played electric guitar in a country dance band for 8 years before his discovery by Ralph Rinzler (who had initially come to record Clarence Ashley) and his subsequent appearance on the folk circuit. And though he never attended college, he holds 3 honorary college degrees.

To my knowledge, he has never made a bad album, nor has he given a bad performance in concert. Nor has he ever been anything less than a perfect gentleman, the epitome of kindness and good humor. Though in his 80s now and in semi-retirement, his skills have not depreciated noticeably. I saw him perform on e-town a couple years ago and he was stunning. He also started a music festival, MerleFest, which has grown to become one of the most acclaimed music festivals in the world. The festival honors his son, Merle Watson, who was also a great guitar player and a musical partner to Doc for 20 years until his untimely death from a tractor accident.

here are his original recordings, made by Ralph Rinzler for Folkways. They feature his friends, partners, and relatives Clarence Ashley, Clint Howard, Fred Price, and Gaither Carlton.
Doc Watson & Clarence Ashley - Original Folkways Recordings 1960-62
2-cd set
Year: 1994 (reissue with 20 bonus tracks)
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
get it here. (rather than re-post the old gigasize file, i'm directing you to freebornman's post of this album)
nmr | mp3 vbr | 2 parts 72mb + 57mb

and here is The Essential Doc Watson, culled from his vanguard recordings of the 60s.
Doc Watson - The Essential Doc Watson
Year: 1973
Label: Vanguard
get it here. (re-posted Mar 25 '08)
mr | mp3 192+kbps vbr | w/ cover | 110mb

and you can get Doc Watson's seminal 1964 self-titled album at Merlin in Rags
and several Doc Watson albums at freebornman's livejournal.

for the rest, I recommend that you buy them; you couldn't be supporting a nicer or more deserving musician than he.

for a detailed biography, discography, guitar instruction, and much more, visit Doc's Guitar
and be sure to check out MerleFest.


Anonymous said...

nice blog, im peccable tasties
any chance of re-uppin lionel belasco's
gnite ladeez n gents?

Anonymous said...

dear irate --

can you possibly repost the belasco disc?

you rule --
skip heller

The Irate Pirate said...

reposted. see original post

cianfulli said...

Doc Watson & Clarence Ashley - Original Folkways Recordings 1960-62
full booklet

W said...

I bought that Doc Watson & Clarence Ashley album fifteen years ago, or so, and I've never tired of it. I'd have to rate it as one of my all time faves. Great stuff!