Doc Watson & Family - Milestones: Legends Of The Doc Watson Clan
In his remarkably appealing synthesis of old-time dance music, bluegrass, blues, early country, gospel, folk and rockabilly, Doc Watson was the virtual personification of American roots music. This folk legend’s story reflects several chapters of American music history, especially the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Blind from a childhood illness, Watson first learned harmonica, then home made banjo, then guitar. Had he been sighted, he has always said, music would have been a hobby, but his blindness forced him to work with a local dance band through much of the 1950s. There, he played pop, country and early rock’n’roll on electric guitar. But his heart was always in the folk, blues and mountain music he grew up hearing in the Carolinas.
This 4-CD set, lovingly put together by Nancy Watson, his only daughter, comprises home recordings made by Doc and his family that captures the pure essence of an Appalachian family like no other recording I’ve ever heard. It seems that all the family are involved in the recordings that span more than 50 years and five generations of the Watson clan. Untouched by commercial aspirations or interference, it’s very much like eavesdropping on the family, as through music and conversation they tell their story in a natural way that is not just endearing, but highly educational and also quite entertaining.
In 1947, Doc married Rosa Lee Carlton, the daughter of popular fiddle player Gaither Carlton. The couple had two children—Eddy Merle (named after country music legends Eddy Arnold and Merle Travis) in 1949, and Nancy Ellen in 1951. All of the family are musical and they passed their passion on to Merle Watson’s children Richard and Karen, who in turn passed the torch on to Richard’s daughter Candis Watson and Karen’s children Channing, Chelsea and Sarah Beth Norris. All of these family members are featured alongside Rosa Lee’s father Gaither and her brother Vaughn Carlton; Doc’s mother Annie Watson; his brothers Arnold and David plus their wives Mae and Betty Jo; Doc’s sisters Ethel Watson Thomas and Jewel Watson; plus various nephews and cousins. There are also additional singers and musicians who’ve worked with Doc or the family down the years including Ralph Rinzler, Jack Williams, T. Michael Coleman, Parkway Elementary School Choir and the Mt. Paron Church Congregation.
There’s a wide variety of songs included from old Appalachian ballads brought across to America from the British Isles to gospel hymns, instrumental pieces, country standards and popular songs. Between the musical performances there are delightful family stories that give the listener a greater insight into not just Doc Watson, but the whole Watson family. For years, music had been more a family affair for Doc than any kind of aspirations for a musical career. His professional recordings proliferated from the mid-1960s, when the middle-aged blind guitarist came to the fore in the wake of the folk boom. For almost 20 years he toured and recorded incessantly with his son, Merle, who died tragically in 1985 in a tractor accident on the Watson farm.
Some 45 years ago, when Doc and Merle were struggling to make ends meet as travelling musicians, Merle asked a question: ‘Dad, what would you think about going commercial? We could probably do it if we put our minds to it.’
Doc recalled asking if his son, also a guitar master, wanted an honest answer.
‘Yes, I do,’ Merle said.
‘I don’t want no part of that rat race,’ Doc said.
And Merle replied: ‘That's my sentiment exactly, Dad. We’ll do what we’re doing.’
To those who have seen and admired Doc Watson’s wondrously simple and moving musicianship, the idea of the blind picker/singer going pop would have been absurd. That broad musical palette, which he called ‘traditional plus whatever I want to play,’ had been the chief virtue of not only his professional career, but also his personal music making, as they are intrinsically linked.
As Doc Watson said several years ago: ‘I can’t imagine what it would be like not to play. Music is not a way of life, but it certainly is a sweetener of life. It can express extreme pleasure or extreme sorrow. It is life set to sound.’
Life set to sound sums up this unique collection perfectly. Not only do you have pure, unadorned folk music, you have these wonderful stories by Doc and other family members—plus collages of more than 500 Watson family photos. Most of it was recorded for personal entertainment, and was previously unavailable outside the Watson family. For those who profess even a passing interest in traditional country music this is an indispensable release and one that I can’t recommend too highly.