Watson Family Milestones
Roy Andrade stood in front of his booth at MerleFest last
month, worrying about the effectiveness of the signage above it.
Andrade, who is the producer of the new four-CD compilation, “Milestones: Legends of the Watson Family Clan,” was having many brief conversations with passersby, and the general consensus is that many do not understand that this anthology is filled with all-new music from Doc Watson and his family members.
Often, the first thought that people have when they hear of this collection is that it is a rehash of previous recordings put together after the deaths of both Watson and his wife, Rosa Lee, last year. But the fact is Doc and Rosa Lee’s daughter, Nancy Watson, has been assembling this project for a long time with her parents’ approval.
Watson and Andrade have painstakingly transferred a large amount of never-before-released family recordings into the modern digital format. The music featured includes cassette and reel-to-reel tapes that have been stored away in closets and attics for nearly half a century, as well as some new music from Doc that was captured a few years ago.
The “Milestones” collection is separated into four distinct CD categories, including “Origins,” “The Early Years,” “Changes” and “Revival.”
As many who are familiar with the history of Doc Watson know, he was married into a family of wonderful North Carolina musicians, including Rosa Lee’s father, Gaither Carlton, a legendary fiddler in his own right. As the liner notes explain, “The stories and songs are by 26 members of the family, some born more than 100 years apart.”
One fascinating recording on the “Origins” disc is a take on the centuries-old fiddle tune, “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” Recorded in 1962 and featuring Doc Watson on guitar, Carlton on fiddle and Doc’s brother, Arnold, on banjo, the low strings of the guitar and fiddle are tuned much lower than usual to get a “drone” effect that harkens back to the ancient musical tones of the Scotland and Ireland of old.
Other highlights include Nancy singing “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again” with her father, showcasing the wonderful guitar work he is known for, Doc’s late son, Merle, interviewing him about “My First Guitar,” and Doc plugging in the electric guitar to perform a rollicking “John Henry” from 1964.
And that brings us to disco two, “The Early Years.” While Doc grew up playing harmonica, banjo and acoustic guitar, for a long time he concentrated on electric guitar as a young man, especially when he played in a local dance band. There are fascinating recordings here that blend Doc’s wonderful voice with sweetly played electric guitar, including 1954’s “Twilight On the Trail,” an American Songbook version of “It Is Better to Have Loved a Little (Than Never to Have Loved At All),” the cowboy-Western groove of “Cimarron” and an old-school honkytonk shuffle with “Hopeless Dreams.”
But perhaps the most mesmerizing recording of Doc playing the electric guitar is his beautiful and atmospheric rendition of the classic song, “Stardust,” from 1955, the sound of which evokes a time gone by in both the music world, as well as the part of Doc’s life that gets overlooked amongst his acoustic flatpick guitar notoriety.
The third disc, “Changes,” features many cuts recorded in the 1960s after Doc and family were “discovered’ by the folk and bluegrass music worlds, including a live version of “Groundhog,” recorded at the Blind Lemon Coffeehouse in 1962. The music of Merle Watson also begins to appear on this portion of the collection.
Disc four, the “Revival” section, features songs made in the 1970s and ’80s and going all of the way up to 2007, including some live cuts of Doc sitting in with Merle’s side band, Frosty Morn.
There is much more to discuss about “Milestones” than there is room for here. But, safe to say, this collection is a must-have for long-time Watson family fans, as well as folks new to the music of these musicians. This compilation is a superb and exclusive look into the many stages of the artistic journey of our High Country legend, Doc Watson.
For more information, or to purchase “Milestones: Legends of the Watson Family Clan,” visit http://www.openrecordsmusic.com.