Doc Watson,
The Doc Watson
Guitar Instrumental
Collection, 1964-1998

(Sugar Hill, 2000)

Simply put, Foundation contains some of the finest music ever recorded. In his song "Dublin Blues," Guy Clark puts the music of Doc Watson in the proper perspective: "I have seen the David, I've seen the Mona Lisa, too / And I have heard Doc Watson play 'Columbus Stockade Blues'." You won't find Doc's version of "Columbus Stockade Blues" on Foundation (it's not an instrumental), but nearly every tune here offers convincing evidence that Doc should be considered the steel-string guitar equivalent of a Michaelangelo or a Da Vinci.

"Discovered" by Ralph Rinzler during the folk boom of the early '60s, Doc built his reputation on his astonishingly fast, fluid and precise flatpicking of fiddle tunes, and this facet of Doc's virtuosity is well-documented here by old favorites such as "Black Mountain Rag" and "Salt Creek/Bill Cheatham." "Doc's Guitar" shows he's no slouch at playing fingerstyle, either.

The backing is sympathetic throughout, whether it consists of just Merle Watson's guitar on the duets, or a full-blown bluegrass band led by mandolinist Sam Bush on "Stone's Rag." Despite the varied settings, Doc's style has stayed remarkably consistent throughout the time documented by Foundation -- but then, he'd been playing for decades before he was ever recorded.

Now for the down side. Thirty-four minutes is a woefully short playing time for a CD given the amount of material available to Sugar Hill, especially considering that every track on Foundation has been released before. The liner notes are equally skimpy; yes, the five-page appreciation of Doc by Dan Crary is very nice, but a list of the musicians on each track would have been even nicer. Finally, by its very nature, this collection may fail to satisfy the listener: a serious fan is likely to have many of the albums these cuts originally appeared on. The focus on instrumentals may disappoint the new or casual fan, who might be better served by the four-CD collection Doc Watson: The Vanguard Years.

Despite these shortcomings, Foundation is worth owning. Although it's not essential for the owner of an extensive Doc Watson collection, it is nice to have a number of Doc's instrumentals in one place. And it's still thirty-four minutes of the finest music ever recorded.

[ by Chris Simmons ]

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