Album Review: Doc Watson, ‘Life’s Work: A Retrospective’

This glorious and stunning 4-CD box set celebrates the career-spanning music of Doc Watson, whose nimble fingerpicking and lickety-split flat picking burned up his guitar frets as he played his way through bluegrass and old-time romps, country and folk blues, pop standards (his take on “Sweet Georgia Brown” is a revelatory treasure), and jazz. The 101 songs on these CDs feature his collaborations with his son, Merle, and with other musicians ranging from Bill Monroe, Allison Krauss, Norman Blake, Tony Rice, and James Cotton, among others. The great value of this set lies in having so much of Watson’s astonishing musicianship in one place, revealing the depth and breadth of his playing within the idioms of traditional music while stretching the boundaries of that music in innovative fashion, turning a bluegrass run with ease into a jazz lick and sliding comfortably back into bluegrass.

The songs and tunes run roughly in chronological fashion, with disc one featuring songs from early in Watson’s career and disc four featuring those from his later playing and performing days. Disc one, for example, contains the old-time banjo tune “Rambling Hobo,” accompanied by an introduction in which Watson tells an interviewer that it was the first song he learned how to play; Watson’s dexterous banjo rolls and picking displays his versatility. By the time we reach the end of disc four, Ricky Skaggs and Allison Krauss are joining their revered mentor for a stirring version of “Down to the River to Pray”; Watson leads the trio in an a cappella take, singing in his strong baritone on the verse as Skaggs and Krauss join in harmonies on the choruses.

There’s no need to listen straight through the set, though, to feel the reverberating genius and musical depth of Watson. Anywhere we settle in this set gives us a sample of Watson’s ability to take a song and make it his own in memorable fashion. Highlights include his set at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival where scampers off with lightning fast speed on a little number he calls out to the crowd as “Tickling the Strings,” and he moves up and down the frets in such a blur that they strings are laughing with joy at his touch; he moves into “Black Mountain Rag,” a scampering tune that he says to the crowd he “just picked up and learned how to play.” That one live performance introduced Watson to a whole new set of fans and musicians, and he was soon playing in clubs in Greenwich Village and interpreting songs such as Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” a version that in this set features his work with his son, Merle. The Watsons’ version inflects the song with a country air. Watson’s spare version of “Poor, Wayfaring Stranger,” which features just him and his guitar, captures the melancholy pull of the song, with an aching, crystalline acoustic lead on the instrumental bridge. His collaboration with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on “Tennessee Stud,” from their iconic 1972 Will the Circle Be Unbroken? album introduced Watson to yet another generation of listeners, and his introductory lead runs lend the song its signature sound. Watson’s frisky fingers scamper up and down the frets on a jazzy version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” while he bends the strings nimbly on the country blues “Sitting on Top of the World.” Maybe the highlight of the entire set is the bluegrass tune “Salt Creek” on which Watson, Norman Blake, and Tony Rice play circles around one another as the tune spirals higher and higher to another musical plane. A gorgeous cappella version of “Amazing Grace” closes out the set with Jean Ritchie, Clarence Ashley, Fred Price, and Clint Howard singing harmony.

Life’s Work: A Retrospective is a treasure trove, and long-time listeners will welcome the opportunity to sit back and marvel at Watson’s musical genius, getting lost in the music, and the set provides an exceptional introduction to Doc Watson and his music.


Life’s Work: A Retrospective is available HERE.

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