Category: Doc Watson


R.I.P. Doc Watson
(a look beyond the appalachian fiddle tune)

June 3rd, 2012 — 01:01 pm





When Arthel “Doc” Watson passed on to the great jam session in the sky this past week, the ensuing nationwide recognition for the man and his impact on our culture was inevitable. Watson is and was rightly cited for his ethnomusical bent, most particularly for how the masterful fingerpicker transformed the fiddle tunes which he heard in his native appalachia for guitar and banjo, bringing traditional songs out of the mountains and hollers into the mainstream of popular music via the folk revival of the fifties and sixties, and creating a trademark picking style out of the transformation, in a time when bluegrass, folk, blues and country were at a crossroads.

The combination of timing, talent, and treatment became the perfect platform for fame and fortune, winning him multiple Grammy awards in both the folk and country categories. And many of the classic tunes he helped spread and salvage run strong in the tradfolk revival today; there is no questioning his legacy.

But though it is his prowess with the songs of Deep Gap, North Carolina which most impacted the folkways, Doc’s true impact on the culture goes far beyond the direct line between the appalachian hills and the folk movement which NPR and others so respectfully recognized in the last several days.

A child prodigy who learned from radio as much as he did from his elders, and who spent much of the fifties playing in a country and western swing band, Doc was a prolific performer and studio musician, and his ear for the popular was equal to his ear for the local.

As such, although it is predominantly for his traditional resurrections which we hear of him today, in his many years of recording and performing, Doc focused no small amount of attention on the swinging Nashville sound, using it to channel the hits and a small handful of originals. After a lifetime achievement of over fifty albums recorded live and in the studio, in collaboration and at the helm, his vast catalog came to include a number of hits from the country charts, plus standards from Elvis to the Everly Brothers, from Broadway to Tin Pan Alley, from The Mississippi Sheiks to Mississippi John Hurt.

We covered the traditional songs of Doc Watson way back in 2008 in a Vacation Coverfolk post, when a trip to North Carolina brought us to steep in the sounds of his particular south; those that might be interested in the deeper particulars of his story and style are invited to click back in time to read more. Today, we pay tribute to the man with a second set of song, which features Doc, friends, and family taking on the tunes of his own century. Listen, especially, for the two lullabies, recorded just after the untimely death of his son and life musical partner Merle, which mark a poignant turning point in our set below.




Download the entire 22 song set as a zip file!

1 comment » | Doc Watson, RIP

(Re)Covered VI: More Covers of and from Freak Folk, Gillian Welch, James Taylor, and Boxing Songs

July 2nd, 2008 — 05:43 pm

A long weekend of solo parenting while my wife headed off to Sonoma County for a long-overdue vacation has left me too exhausted for deep thought. Happily, thanks to reader emails, new releases and new discoveries, I’ve got plenty of material for yet another installment of our popular (Re)Covered series, wherein we recover songs that dropped through the cracks too late to make it into the posts where they belonged.

A few weeks back, when my laptop went kablooie, Jamie — host of the ever-miraculous coverblog Fong Songs — stepped in to save the day with a fascinating guest themepost on Boxing coversongs. Jamie is one of the good guys, and he’s been a great friend since we started Cover Lay Down, giving me an open invitation to share the occasional non-folk set of covers over at his place, and even encouraging his own readers to take advantage of our great promotion for artist-friendly music source Amie Street. So I was thrilled when his guest post turned out to be one of the most popular posts we’ve had here at Cover Lay Down. You guys have good taste.

As a tip of the hat to this fine coverblogging peer, here’s two more covers of that most obvious Simon and Garfunkel classic from a few great women on the edge of the folkworld: the slow but bright post-country popfolk of Deana Carter (with vocals from Paul Simon’s eldest son), and a surprisingly old-timey take from Emmylou Harris just dripping with tight countryfolk harmony.

Though our Subgenre Coverfolk feature on Freak Folk is long past, I continue to struggle with Freak Folk and its relationship to folk music writ large. I called it a subgenre when I blogged about it, but the lines around it remain fuzzy, and the question of whether this counts as folk or not remains too entwined with the new indie usurpation of the term “folk” for me to feel totally confident, even now, that I got it right.

Looking back, I think I agree that Iron and Wine probably doesn’t belong in the roster, despite critical clumping, though I continue to believe that Sufjan shares more sensibility with Devendra Banhart, both as a performer and as a composer, than, say, Vetiver, who tend towards the electronic end of things. But looking at my ever-growing roster of song, I would have no problem including both “chamber pop” singer Antony and the Johnsons and “dream-folk” singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler in any feature on Freak Folk as a subgenre of folk music if I was to post it today. In addition to sharing Banhart’s peculiar wavery lyrical delicacy, both go for a swim of sound which is mystical and grand and personal all at once. It’s eminently folk, and eminently authentic. Freak Folk may be hard to describe, but this music matches my sense of what it is.

In the comments section of what was otherwise a pretty thorough exploration-through-covers of the songs of Gillian Welch way back in January, several folks mentioned that Over the Rhine covers Orphan Girl live in concert. Having just become a fan of these post-folkers after hearing (and reviewing) their holiday album, I spent the next few months gathering in bootlegs, and — though the piano is a little heavy in spots — have come to the conclusion that the “official” version from their Live from Nowhere, Vol. 2 album remains the best recording of a great, fleshed-out anthemic approach to this song.

While we’re on the subject, how about another couple of covers of and from the mistress of the new “American Primitive” movement? It’s a little to the left of center, as folk goes, but I just love this americana/ alt-country cover of Look at Miss Ohio from newcomers The New Frontiers. And I’ve been looking for an excuse to post Welch’s dreamy cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty for ages, since it combines one of my favorite songs with one of my absolute famous performers. (PS: Gillian Welch’s entire catalog is newly available at Amie Street, too…)

Finally, we’ve been slamming the feedreaders this week over at collaborative music blog Star Maker Machine with our Fifty States theme: I missed the Massachusetts connection, but was happy to provide a few great songs (originals and covers) for the likes of Rhode Island (Erin McKeown, Blossom Dearie, Jennifer O’Connor), North Dakota (Lyle Lovett), New Jersey (John Gorka, Cliff Eberhardt), and Virginia (Johnny Cash, Dave Alvin, and Crooked Still).

The planning process took me back to our Carolina Coverfolk series week; while I was there, I found I had missed a few great songs. I ended up choosing a favorite John Hartford song about North Carolina for Star Maker Machine. But since we’re looking back, here’s an old kidsong from North Carolina tradsong savior Doc Watson, and one more Sam Cooke cover from North Carolina emigrant James Taylor, that really shouldn’t have been missed….plus a bonus pair: local singer-songwriter and labor activist Tom Juravich with a true campfire folk cover of James Taylor’s Millworker, and a cover of Fire and Rain by alt-rock/pop/folk artist Dido, just because it made me totally rethink her musicianship.

Cover Lay Down is proud to support music through raising awareness, but musicians can’t eat awareness. As such, all artist links above lead to websites and stores where you can buy music without having to support corporate cash cows that pay suits better than musicians. And if you’re planning on going digital, remember, folks: Amie Street is not only cheaper than most download sources, it gives back 70% of all profits to artists. Use the code coverlaydown when you sign up for Amie Street, and you’ll get three bucks towards your music purchase absolutely free!

Coming soon on Cover Lay Down: more folk covers of plenty more popstars, a tribute to my elder child (who turns six in a week and a half), something vaguely patriotic, and a few more single-track cover featurettes from some great new albums and artists which I just can’t seem to shake, and wouldn’t want to. And it’s only two more weeks until Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival!


Still here? Then P.S. and FYI, coverfans:

  1. I don’t usually promote upcoming radio shows/podcasts, but the folks at The Waiting Room, a radio show out of Cardiff, Wales (UK), will feature three hours of Tom Waits covers on tonight’s broadcast. Their Drunk Covers series is generally good, with vast genre influences, and there’s been a spate of Waits covers around this year…so expect to hear some Tom Waits covertracks you’ve heard here in the last few months…and a whole bunch more you haven’t. The show is broadcast on ErrorFM, which can be heard everywhere; podcast available here on Thursday!

  2. If you haven’t been to Covering the Mouse recently, now’s the time: friend and occasional reciprocal guest-poster Kurtis will be celebrating his one year bloggiversary this month, and to honor the occasion, he’s collecting votes on your favorite past posts for a midsummer review of the best and worst Disney covers. Make your mark: vote now!
  3. I’m not thrilled about Doveman’s cover of the entire soundtrack to Footloose, but My Old Kentucky Blog seems okay with it. Maybe you’ll like it. It’s free…

934 comments » | (Re)Covered, Antony and the Johnsons, Deana Carter, Dido, Doc Watson, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, James Taylor, Marissa Nadler, Over The Rhine, The New Frontiers, Tom Juravich

(Re)Covered V: More Covers of and from Richard Shindell, Cindy Kallet, Doc Watson, James Taylor

May 4th, 2008 — 06:38 pm

News, new releases, and new discoveries leave us no choice but to bring you yet another long-overdue installment of our popular (Re)Covered series, wherein we recover songs that dropped through the cracks too late to make it into the posts where they belonged.

A huge news trifecta this week from Cover Lay Down inaugural-post favorite Richard Shindell: he’s started a blog, he’s decided to reopen sales of his recent live album as a digital download, and he’s decided to try financing his next record by offering every single one of us the chance to become a producer.

Shindell’s blog is already proving to be a vibrant space for thoughtful, well-written treatises on the world and how it is changing, though we’d expect nothing less from this articulate singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter; the first two entries offer a short journalistic report from his adopted homeland of Argentina, and an artist’s-eye reflection on how changes in the music industry have altered the relationship between musicians and fans, primarily for the better. And the news that others will soon be able to order his well-produced and wonderfully organic live album, which I wrote about in our six-month anniversary post, is just plain great.

But I’m especially excited to see Shindell join the growing ranks of folk artists who are not only embracing the new, digital world, but tapping into its fullest potential. Album microfinancing through the fanbase is a gutsy move, but it is a viable one, as singer-songwriters Kris Delmhorst and Jill Sobule have successfully demonstrated; the multi-tiered approach Shindell is using to finance his new work seems creative, and offers real return for investors: at the entry level, you’re basically buying the album in advance; from there, investment return climbs all the way up to house concerts and housepainting.

As Richard points out in his most recent blog entry, working with “big music” and the RIAA has its costs, and often require that artists work in ways which are not consistent with their own value systems. But the file-sharing landscape offers new opportunities which greatly improve the potential for the relationship between artists and fans. Fan financing is just one example of this; a second is Shindell’s creation of an open guitar case, where those who have downloaded his work for free, or just appreciate it, can choose to stop by and support Shindell directly. Here’s hoping that this is only the tip of a very big iceberg.

Please join me in supporting the creation of Richard’s new album, and celebrating yet one more musician who has decided to leave behind the crumbling, artist-unfriendly industry. Even if you aren’t interested in purchasing a full album, or participating in microfinancing at this time, if you like the songs I’ve included here, or enjoyed previously-posted covers from Richard Shindell, including songs by Springsteen and Ritter, Leonard Cohen, and Jeffrey Foucault and Dar Williams, please consider donating to Shindell via his open guitar case.

In other (Re)Covered-worthy news, I just recieved my review copy of Heart Walk, the new album from the trio of Cindy Kallet, Ellen Epstein, and Michael Cicone. As expected, it’s a beautful work, full of robust harmony and sincere emotion, primarily comprised of coversongs of underappreciated folk artists who share the same social and ecological sensibilities of Kallet and co. Like the trio’s previous two albums, which I wrote about in our previous feature on Cindy Kallet, Heart Walk is both an especially powerful musical experience, and a great and loving introduction to the work of other folk musicians you may not have heard of, but should. Kudos, all around.

Order Heart Walk and hear samples here; if you live in the Boston area, come join me at First Parish Church in Watertown on May 17th for the Kallet, Epstein, and Cicone CD release party, a rare opportunity to see the trio (and friends) perform live. In the meantime, these two covertracks from the new album — a cover of an old Judy Collins tune, and an absolutely stunning cover of Peter Mayer’s Holy Now featuring Michael’s warm, clear lead vocals — are a great way to whet the appetite.

  • Kallet, Epstein, Cicone, Holy Now (orig. Peter Mayer)
  • Kallet, Epstein, Cicone, Since You Asked (orig. Judy Collins)

Our recent vacation to North Carolina was lots of fun, but being without the bulk of my music collection meant a relative dearth of music availability for the posts I produced while on the road. Happily, since my return, my continued search for songs from fathers to daughters and more old folk song covers from Doc Watson led me to Daddies Sing Good Night, a decade-old compilation from bluegrass label Sugar Hill records. This great coveralbum, which turned up in my daughter’s vanity, was the source for the Seldom Scene cover of Sweet Baby James I included in our recent James Taylor coversongs megapost; it also includes these two great father-to-son cuts from Doc Watson.

And finally, speaking of ol’ JT: thanks to all my readers, especially long-time reader and fan Carol, for the many songs and suggestions that poured in after the aforementioned James Taylor megapost. Though I’m saving most of my newly-embiggened collection of Taylor covers ever-hopefully for a future post on other members of the mightily talented Taylor Family, here’s that Alison Krauss and James Taylor cover of the Louvin Brothers I’d been looking for — it’s even better than I hoped it would be.

801 comments » | (Re)Covered, Alison Krauss, Cindy Kallet, Doc Watson, James Taylor, Judy Collins, Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, Pete Seeger, Peter Gabriel, Peter Mayer, richard shindell, Townes van Zandt

Carolina Coverfolk, Vol. 3: The Traditional Folksongs of Doc Watson

April 25th, 2008 — 02:57 am

Elizabeth Cotten and Arthel “Doc” Watson share more than just a connection to the state of North Carolina. Both were culturally disadvantaged — Cotten due to her skin color, and Doc due to a lifelong blindness. Each started performing in childhood, but became truly famous in the great folk revival of the sixties. Both are known for songs which celebrate the hard life and trials of their beloved rural south while addressing universal themes of loss, change, and heartache. And, most importantly, though no one could confuse Cotten’s rural bluesfolk for Doc’s country swing style, each is ranked among the best acoustic fingerpickers of their generation.

But the differences between the two are great, as well. In fact, presenting Doc Watson and Elizabeth Cotten side by side makes for an interesting exercise in folk history, one which allows us to see the great diversity of the strands and influences which came together to make modern folk music in America.


Unlike Elizabeth Cotton, who came back to folk in the sixties after a long hiatus, Doc Watson (b. 1923) was always a musician, busking with his brother for pennies as a child, supporting himself and his family with his work as a piano tuner to pay the bills when he could not find paid work as a sideman. Though he worked through much of the fifties as an electric guitar player with a country and western swing band, when the modern folk scene began to crystalize in the early sixties, Doc switched over to acoustic guitar and banjo exclusively, making a name for himself as one of the best fingerpickers in the business, and finding himself in high demand on the burgeoning folk circuit.

Where Cotten is primarily known for her original songs and original rhythmic style, Doc Watson’s greatest contributions to folk music came from his source material and lightning speed. His ability to blow the socks off every other picker in the room is well known, and his work as a songwriter is honest and respectable. But as folk, his repertoire is most significant for its use of songs from the oral tradition which might otherwise have been lost. We might say that while it was Mike Seeger’s recordings of Elizabeth Cotten which saved her authentic voice, Doc Watson’s recordings and performance of the mountain ballads from the areas around his home of Deep Gap, North Carolina allow us to consider Doc a Seeger to his own people.

This is not to say that the tradsongs of Doc Watson sound anything like Cotten’s originals, stylistically-speaking. While Cotten’s fingerpicking style comes from applying banjo style to the guitar, Watson’s quickfingered picking style is the successful result of moving songs that were traditionally fiddle tunes to the acoustic guitar. Where Cotton was self-taught, Watson learned his trade through the traditional country songs of the south, and the songs of early country greats like the Louvin and Monroe Brothers.

Where Cotton ended up finding a style that sounded more like early blues musicians, Watson’s different approach and experience, plus his apprenticeship in the country and western genres, left him with a wail and a sense of rhythm that call to the same acoustic old-timey country sound that you might hear in the rougher, hippier corners of bluegrass and country festivals today.

Another way of saying this might be to point out that where Cotten shows the blues influence on folk music, Doc Watson shows the country — an influence which, despite its significance, is often the elephant in the room when it comes to folk music. His style and his “mountain music” sound hark to a time back before country and folk music had truly split off from each other, and long before alt-country bands like Uncle Tupelo, newgrass bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, old timey bands like Old Crow Medicine Show, and modern western swing folk musicians like Eilen Jewell went spelunking in the deep well of potential that lies between true country music and the post-sixties folk (and rock) music scenes.

Today, both country and folk music claim Doc Watson as one of their own, and rightfully so. Doc holds multiple Grammy awards in both the Traditional Folk and the Country Instrumental categories; Merlefest — the festival named after Doc’s son and long-time musical partner, who died in a tractor accident in 1985 — is known for attracting the best music and musicians from the intersection of folk, bluegrass, and country. But no matter what you call it, Doc Watson’s sound is instantly recognizable, powerful, and no less potent today, eighty years after it could be heard on the streets of his beloved North Carolina.

Today’s collection is a bit heavier on the tradfolk than cover lovers might ordinarily prefer. But this is no loss. Focusing primarily on the traditional folksongs Watson interpreted allows us to celebrate one of his greatest contributions to American folk music. Though the pickin’s are slim, thanks to some of the great bloggers that have come before me and the luck of a grab-and-go draw before we hit the road last Friday, what follows includes some great and representative tradfolk from a fifty year career, from old live recordings with Merle to Doc’s haunting baritone lead vocals on a beautiful back-porch version of Gershwin’s faux spiritual Summertime.

I’m no expert on the works of Doc Watson, and as you can see from the diverse source albums listed above, his catalog is especially prolific. But if you’re new to his sound, and want to begin a collection, purists tell me the best place to start is Smithsonian Folkways for the older stuff, and Doc Watson and David Holt’s page for his most recent Grammy-winning work. Also recommended, since we missed Record Store Day last Saturday: head to your local record store and, after searching fruitlessly for sections labeled “Traditional Folk” or “Traditional Country”, ask for any of the above-mentioned disks by name.

Cover Lay Down will be heading from North Carolina to Massachusetts on Saturday, and will return Sunday evening with a feature on an artist who made the same transition. Keep pickin’ and grinnin’, and we’ll see you then.

857 comments » | David Grisman, Doc Watson, Merle Watson, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Chieftains, Tradfolk