Back a decade ago, I featured back catalogue or retrospective bluegrass and acoustic albums in the newsletter of the Waskasoo Bluegrass Music Society, an organization based in my home community of Red Deer, Alberta. I called the column "Gold...In a Way," based on the idea that while the albums I was likely to write about were unlikely to sell 'gold' quantities, the music they contained would be worth more than their weight.
Over the past couple weeks, I have been giving thought to resurrecting this idea for use her at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass. In fact, this morning I was listening to Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band's "The Mountain" album in anticipation of such. Tonight though, and really since word broke last week that he was doing poorly, I've been thinking of Doc Watson.
I take you back then to 2003 and some writing I did that autumn after falling under the spell of Doc and David Holt's "Legacy." I'm listening to disc one as I start typing these words, copying from the Winter 2004 edition of "That High Lonesome Sound."
Doc Watson & David Holt- "Legacy" (2002) High Windy
How far would you travel for a compact disc? This last summer  I traveled over 5000 kilometres just to get my hands on a copy of Doc Watson and David Holt's Grammy Award-winning triple disc package, "Legacy."
When my wife first mentioned a trip to the Maritimes, I was mildly interested as this is an area we had considered visiting for several years. However, having done more than one holiday in my time, I knew to check out the musical offerings occurring during our allotted timeframe. Ten minutes with Google was all it took: appearing at the Prince Edward Island Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Festival was David Holt. Two thoughts went through my brain- I'm going to that fest and I'm going to buy a copy of "Legacy." And I did.
"Legacy" is a richly packaged, lovingly annotated, three-disc package of conversation and music that tells the Doc Watson story in his own words- an audio autobiography for lack of better description. This is not a bluegrass recording, focusing on Watson's old-time music. The first two discs feature David Holt interviewing Doc Watson in a Boone, North Carolina studio. Hold guides the conversation to the most salient aspects of Watson's life in Deep Gap, NC- his family life, early musical influences including an old Victrola, a banjo made from granny's poor, old cat, and his progressive blindness while not yet a toddler. What comes through in Doc's voice and words is the incredible respect and love he had and had for his family, particularly his father General Watson. The man encouraged young Arthel in his musical pursuits from a very early age, teaching him the basics of instrumentation with, "Learn how to pick it good...it might help get you through this world." General also made sure that Doc understood the value of putting him on the other end of a cross-cut saw for a summer of labour.
As the conversation continues, David encourages Doc to expand upon stories that many of us have heard repeated but not necessarily had the pleasure of hearing from Doc himself. Stories about how Doc left home for parts of five years to attend the School for the Blind in Raleigh, NC and how it was here that Doc learned how to play the guitar from a fellow student; the importance of the stack of 78s his brothers and father earned by working in a sawmill for a week; the family connection to the Tom Dula- Laura Foster story; and many other insights into his early years in the rural mountains of his home area.
Later, the conversation moves through the years of playing weekend dances, participating in the Folk Music revival, hitting the road with son Merle, and participating in the "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" album. Through all this conversation- timing in at over two hours- David Holt stays in the background, saying only enough to get Doc to expand on a thought or move onto the next topic. Doc Watson speaks clearly and at length in his forthright, honest manner. He isn't afraid to mention the darker side of things but doesn't dwell on these, preferring to mention the richness of his family home and life, filled with music.
Interspersed in the discussion, Doc plays many songs of his childhood and career, largely unaccompanied, on the harmonica, banjo, and guitar. As fascinating as the spoken word segments are, it is these brief musical vignettes that most made this package worth the dollars I paid for it. Doc plays Deep River Blues in the Merle Travis style, tears apart Ruben's Train in the manner of his father, sings Bury Me Beneath the Willow, and shares his family's rendition of Tom Dooley. In all, sixteen numbers are flawlessly performed over the first two discs, all with some type of historical or personal perspective added by Doc Watson.
The third disc is a live concert set given by Holt and Watson that celebrates not only the music of Doc Watson by old-time music- including its stories- and their place in the modern world. While Holt takes a few turns, the focus rightly remains on Doc Watson. His voice was in real fine form on this night and the picking is spellbinding in its clarity. The selection of numbers is also of interest. While Watson standbys such as Shady Grove and The Train the Carried My Girl From Town are faultless, it is less frequently heard tunes and songs that attract me. Among these are Whiskey Before Breakfast/Ragtime Annie which kicks off the set, the seldom heard Otto Wood, Don't Get Weary, and The Telephone Girl. The humorous exchange about Bantars and Gitjos is priceless. The music has a very warm, close feel about it, the kind of atmosphere that is possible only in very comfortable surroundings. Listening to this recording makes me regret- yet again- that I don't live in Asheville or other communities close to the heart of this music.
When chatting to David Holt this past summer, his love for the "Legacy" project was palatable. As a friend and musical companion to Watson, Hold has spent countless hours listening to Doc's story and found the means to document this rich cultural and personal history before it was too late to do so. Holt's respect for both Watson and old-time music are obvious and he is justifiably pleased with the results of this project. Last year's Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Music Album was nice, but one gets the feeling that Hold considers the time he was able to spend with Doc as the true prize.
"Let me clue ya," as Doc would say: I cannot imagine any fan of bluegrass, old-time, and Doc Watson music being disappointed in this wonderful package. Not only do you get three discs of stories and songs, a 72-page booklet accompanies the gatefold packaging. Included in this booklet are annotations accompanying each number, remembrances from friends, colleagues, and family, as well as numerous photographs that haven't often been viewed.
Doc Watson's legacy is well protected and enhanced by this very excellent set. For anyone who has had the pleasure to meet Doc Watson or attend a live performance, these discs are wonderful souvenirs. For all, it is a beautiful introduction to the man, his history, and his music.
(I cringed a little while typing some of the above words. I'm not sure I'm a better writer today than I was ten years ago, but I suspect I am a more circumspect one. Still, only typos have been corrected.)
That summer, I traveled from Rollo Bay, Prince Edward Island to Dawson Creek, British Columbia to hear bluegrass and folk music. The memories of most of the events have faded, but what hasn't is the experience of sitting under a canvas canopy, hearing David Holt talk about his experiences with Doc Watson. Listening to this album as darkness falls on May 29, 2012, I am appreciative that I was able to experience the music of Doc Watson throughout these last 25 years and got to see him in concert twice. I do regret that I didn't take the chance of introducing myself and shaking his hand the one time I had the opportunity.
We all die. Some of us leave more than just what we created. I think Doc Watson is one of those rare people who will continue to influence our world long after his death.