Doc Watson, “one of the treasures of American music” says Mighty Poplar and Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge, would have turned 100 this year, on March 3, 2023. His smooth, crisp, and clear finger-picking style influenced generations of flatpickers from Clarence White down to Billy Strings. What more fitting tribute to Watson and his legacy than to release a tribute album on this Friday, April 28, at MerleFest, which Watson founded in 1988 to honor his son, Merle, who died in a car accident in 1985.
I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100 brings together a diverse group of guitarists—from slide guitarist Ariel Posen and bluesman Corey Harris to jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and lap tapping guitarist Yasmin Williams—playing styles from across the musical landscape. The 15 songs and tunes on the album illustrate the depth of Watson’s influence on American music. As Jack Lawrence, who played as Watson’s second guitarist for 27 years, observes “Doc really hated being called a bluegrass act—he did so many other things, from pop standards to rockabilly.”
Watson inhabited every song or tune he ever played, making it his own with his characteristic vocal delivery and most all with his never-miss-a-note guitar playing. According to Eldridge, “there’s something about the drive and the life force that existed in all of his playing. He played with so much clarity.” One of the essential features of I Am a Pilgrim is the sparkling clarity each artist allows to shine on each tune or song.
Jerry Douglas weaves layers of shimmering sonic beauty on his resonator guitar on the opening track, an instrumental version of “Shady Grove.” The tune unfurls slowly, almost tenderly, as Douglas creates a honeyed melodic forest of sound that evokes the dappled light and shadow of the grove of the title. Like Watson, Douglas creates a spacious sonic atmosphere in which the musical notes dash and dart around one another in a yearning rhythmic swirl.
Over the strains of James Shipp’s harmonium and Stephanie Coleman’s achingly mournful fiddle notes, Nora Brown delivers a haunting rendition of the Charles Wesley hymn “Am I Born to Die.” Brown’s high lonesome vocals convey the weariness, loneliness, and hope in the song. This version—one of the highlights on the album—captures the soul-heaviness and longing that accompany earthly life as it wends its way toward the promise of a new life after death.
Close your eyes when listening to Steve Earle’s interpretation of “Make Me a Pallet,” and for a moment you just might think you’re hearing Watson again. Earle’s jaunty flatpicking, which cross the border between jazz and bluegrass, and his gruff vocals capture the essence of Doc Watson.
Jack Lawrence contributes to the tribute with a tune he and Doc played together at almost every show, “Florida Blues.” He recalls that the record’s executive producer Mitch Greenhill called him about ten days before the deadline and wanted to know if he’d be interested in recording anything. “We went back and forth on a few tunes. Mitch mentioned ‘Florida Blues.’ He wanted something fast. I got it done.” Lawrence says that his version is pretty faithful to the versions he’s played with Watson over the years, but “the tunes evolve. Doc and I never played it the same way twice. There’s probably a little more of me in this interpretation that what I did with Doc with some open strings melodic kind of like melodic banjo. Everything I do and play goes back to Doc anyway.”
Doc Watson meets the sonic spaciousness of rock and roll in slide guitar master Ariel Posen’s shimmering, bone-shaking and soul-stirring version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” while Bill Frisell and Valerie June turn in a sparkling interpretation of “Handsome Molly” that features a ringing, resonant duet between June’s banjo strums and Frisell’s cascading guitar notes. June’s soaring vocals convey the airiness of the ballad.
When producer Matt Stevens asked Yasmin Williams to be involved in the project, she was super excited to do it, but “I hope Matt doesn’t expect me to play as fast as Doc Watson,” she laughs. Her introduction to Watson came when she was opening for Tommy Emmanuel, and he played “Doc’s Guitar.” “I became a huge fan of Doc Watson that night so I looked up a lot of his tracks. I liked his compositional style; even though he’s playing fast, it’s very crisp.”
She chose “Doc’s Guitar” for the tribute album: “I was faithful to the original, and I added my own lap tapping section. My version is almost note-for-note. I added my own spin at the end of the track.”
The dark New Orleans-rock-inflected “Lost Soul” prowls like a haint along Marc Ribot’s psychedelic lead runs as Ribot’s growling vocals play call and response with Eszter Balint’s vocals.
Eldridge contributes a poignant, melodic rendering of the woeful old time ballad “Little Sadie.” Eldridge got involved in the project when producer Stevens—“who is a wonderful, wonderful guitar player”—gave him a call. “There this neat tribute project I have been asked to wrangle; would you want to be involved?” he asked. “As it happened, this was a song I had been working on randomly,” Eldridge recalls, “trying to figure out some parts, though some of those parts didn’t make into this version in the end.” Eldridge and bassist Paul Kowert play the song as a duet. “We tried to find something different to do with it,” Eldridge notes.
The album closes much as it opens, with a glimmering multi-layered instrumental. Bill Frisell’s crystal clear guitar notes on “Your Lone Journey” swirl with ringing precision, capturing the solitary final walk of an individual.
I Am a Pilgrim testifies to Watson’s enduring musical legacy by letting the music fill the air and breathing new life into songs long associated with, or written by, Doc Watson. As Lawrence points out, “Doc’s major contribution was that he brought back a lot of the old Elizabethan ballads and also the folk ballads from his area in North Carolina. What a lot of people don’t realize about Doc is that when he was discovered by Ralph Rinzler, he played electric guitar. Rinzler told Doc he had something to contribute to the folk scare era, so Doc started playing acoustic guitar and studied and re-learned that material.”
As Williams says, “He’s inspired a host of people to pick up guitar. If there was a Mt. Rushmore of guitar players he would be on it.” Says Eldridge: “The musical landscape would be pretty different if Doc Watson weren’t here. He’s this really interesting character in my mind; he was vocal about being humble. He wasn’t looking to be a big innovator but there is something so beautifully true about everything that he did musically that captured people and made this music relevant for generations of people and had a big part in that music thriving today.”
I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100 will be released on April 28 to coincide with MerleFest, the music festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, that Watson founded in 1988 to honor his son, Merle, who died in an accident in 1985.
I Am a Pilgrim is available HERE.