Doc & Merle Watson,
Sittin' Here Pickin' the Blues
(Rounder, 2004)

Though billed as a blues recording, Sittin' Here Pickin' the Blues features nothing especially hardcore and a fair number of cuts that are "blues" in name only (e.g., "Blue Ridge Mountain Blues," "Carroll County Blues"). In the early history of country music, record companies noticed that the white rural audience had a taste for blues, too, and thus grafted the word to the titles of songs and tunes that were not, strictly or even broadly speaking, blues.

Of course, a few country musicians -- Jimmie Rodgers most famously, his contemporary Frank Hutchison and, later, Harmonica Frank Floyd -- were capable bluesmen. Doc Watson, on the other hand, seems never to have been deeply immersed in African-American blues as such. For the most part, his blues come from white artists such as the above-mentioned, Dock Boggs, his mentor Clarence Ashley, the Delmore Brothers and others. True, Mississippi John Hurt was a friend and influence, especially on Doc's son Merle (who died in a tractor accident in 1985). Hurt could and did do some blues, but his style was rooted in earlier, pre-blues African-American traditions (religious songs, ballads, dance tunes), and his blues were softer-edged than the raw, intense sounds of his younger contemporaries in Mississippi's Delta and Hill Country. One might even say that Hurt was an older, African-American equivalent to Doc Watson.

But however you define it, this collection -- taken from a 1970s Flying Fish album of the same title, plus eight other cuts culled and remastered from other Watson recordings on that label in the same period -- is a welcome addition to the already extensive Watson catalogue. In those days Doc and Merle were experimenting, not always successfully, with a fatter band sound, including percussion on occasion. The experiment worked most consistently during the Flying Fish days. (Compare them with the spottier Tomato/United Artist recordings, which sometimes verge on the unlistenable.) The tunes have a rich, full texture, enhanced by Merle's slide and Hurt-inflected picking.

The songs are mostly well chosen, a spectacular exception being the jazz-pop classic "Stormy Weather," which painfully underscores Doc's vocal limitations. He and Merle should have had the good sense to turn it into an instrumental. One standout, from the Rodgers catalogue (though Rodgers himself did not write it), is "Hobo Bill's Last Ride," with some lovely yodeling by Doc and tasty slide licks by Merle. In terms of actual blues, their reading of Barbecue Bob's canonical "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues" is as inspired as anything here.

At this stage of a long and distinguished career as a giant of American folk music, further praise of Doc Watson -- as well as the still-missed Merle -- is superfluous. Just do what Doc would want you to do: go listen.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 2 October 2004

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