Doc Watson
& David Holt,
(High Windy, 2002)

More than 20 years after President Jimmy Carter called him a "national treasure," Doc Watson remains a singular voice in traditional American music. Through the course of his career, he has collected the National Medal of Arts, a National Heritage Fellowship, five Grammy awards and the admiration (and envy) of countless acoustic guitar players. Watson is a first-rate songster, a walking "wireless" of songs that span country, bluegrass, blues, folk and gospel, a singer with a voice that remains rich, sweet and strong, and one of the finest pickers in the history of flat-top acoustic guitars. Now turning 80, Watson has cut back on his concert schedule, yet he fully and nobly meets the standard of "living legend."

David Holt is a storyteller, singer, banjoist, resonator guitarist and television host. Like Watson, Holt is a resident of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, and his songs and stories seem to emanate from the hills themselves. He also is an insightful and sympathetic interviewer, one who revels in, and draws out, the down-home wit and humility of a wise elder like Doc Watson.

The three-CD collection Legacy is a joint effort by these two long-time friends that sketches the life and music of Doc Watson. Happily, the project succeeds on many levels: as an oral and written biography of Watson, as a testament to Watson's still-considerable live performance skills and as an outstanding document of 20th-century rural American music.

The first two CDs consist of Holt's interviews with Watson about his life and career. Accompanying the interviews is an extensive booklet/mini-biography that adds further facts and anecdotes, interviews with other artists and pictures of Watson. Through the interviews and booklet, we gain a rich perspective about Watson as a person and musician. Blind from infancy, born into a rural North Carolina family of humble means, Watson learned to be self-sufficient and productive by working on the farm with his father. As a child, he was educated at the School for the Blind in Raleigh, N.C., and learned banjo, harmonica and guitar from his father. He married a local girl, Rosa Lee Carlton, and often played guitar with her father, Gaither. Some of Watson's earliest musical influences were Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and later Merle Travis and the Monroe Brothers. He was "discovered" in 1960 by the musicologist Ralph Rinzler, who brought Watson north to play for appreciative folk revival audiences. When the revival faded, Watson kept playing traditional songs, partnering with other bluegrass and country legends on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's classic album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. He formed a musical partnership and close friendship with his son, Merle, who later died in a tragic farm accident in 1985.

One dimension of Watson's life that is not addressed in Legacy is his religious faith. Raised a Baptist, Watson has performed songs and made comments from the stage throughout his career that seem to reflect a deep and genuine religious grounding. In 1990, he released an album of old-time gospel songs, On Praying Ground. In Legacy, aside from anecdotes about his father and mother's singing in the local church, no mention is made of Watson's religious faith or its importance in his life.

The centerpiece of this collection, reflective of the centrality of music in Watson's life, is the live concert on the third disk. Accompanied by Holt, Watson sings and plays banjo, harmonica and guitar on a song list that spans a variety of styles and influences. A few of the concert highlights include "Shady Grove," a tune that Watson sang while courting Rosa Lee, "Train That Carried My Girl from Town," a traditional mountain song that Watson recorded in the 1960s for Vanguard Records, Ernest Tubbs' touching gospel plea, "Stand By Me," and "I Got the Blues and I Can't Be Satisfied," a fingerstyle country-blues classic by Mississippi John Hurt. For the latter tune, Watson and Holt are joined onstage by Doc's grandson (and the late Merle Watson's son), Richard Watson. Indeed, the family circle remains unbroken.

In all, Legacy is an entertaining and enlightening collection that does justice to the art and life of Doc Watson..

- Rambles
written by Michael Collins
published 22 February 2003

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